Apr 14

Calcio Fiorentino

Football (or soccer) is one of the world’s most popular pastimes; professional leagues have extensive, devoted, and extremely passionate followings.  The sport is believed to be the descendant of a variety of ancient ball games, particularly those enjoyed by the Romans and Greeks.  Although nearly all of these versions eventually died out and gave way to the current form of football, one precursor to the modern game has survived.

Originating in the sixteenth century, the game is now referred to as calcio storico (historic football) or calcio fiorentino (after Florence, the city where it is still played).  While the roots of modern football are evident in calcio storico (primarily as players use their feet to maneuver the ball toward the opposing team’s goal), there are also stark contrasts between the modern and historic games.  Storico matches often appear more similar to rugby than football, as players can also use their hands to manipulate the ball and are permitted to be exceptionally violent.


Calcio storico allows the use of a wide range of strikes against opponents.  Throwing of punches, elbows, and headbutts are all legal according to official rules, as is choking an opponent.  Its combative style requires a unique type of athleticism from its players.  During the 1500s, the game became notorious beyond Italy for its violent nature.  The French king Henry III, who attended a match while on a diplomatic visit to Venice, is said to have remarked that storico was “…too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”


Like many other predecessors to football, calcio storico eventually lost popularity and support.  It largely fell from practice during the 1600s.  Fortunately, however, cultural and historic interest (as well as a desire to distinguish Italian sport from that of its neighbors) brought about its revival in 1930.  A limited number of games are played annually in Florence, with four teams representing each quarter of the city.  As with many traditions in Italy, the final match corresponds with a religious holiday, and is held on the feast of the patron of Florence, San Giovanni (St. John).

Rules established in the sixteenth century remain in use today; calcio storico is still as brutal a sport as it first was.  Fifty-minute matches are played on sand fields, with long, narrow goals at each end.  Teams consist of twenty-seven men, and matches require a total of seven officials.  Traditional uniforms (namely pants in the sixteenth-century style) are used by the teams from each quarter, which are designated by a color (red, blue, green, or white).


The rebirth of calcio storico has preserved a unique aspect of Italian history and culture.  Its annual matches bring the Renaissance back to life each year, and just as modern football is linked to this sixteenth-century ancestor, storico has its roots in the ancient Roman game of harpastum.  Although the immediate attention of locals and visitors at the yearly matches is always on sport, calcio storico calls to mind a rich history and the importance of its preservation.


Apr 14

Diplomatic Recognition

Officially, Taliban control of Afghanistan ended in 2001.  The movement, which had brutally enforced its interpretation of Sharia law for half of a decade, was overthrown by the American invasion and replaced by a democratic government led by Hamid Karzai.  Unfortunately, the official change of power did not entirely alter the reality in Afghanistan.  The Taliban remains in control of a number of the nation’s more remote sectors, and continues to pose a threat to the stability of the new government, particularly as it prepares for a new leader to take office.

Recognizing that the Taliban still wields power, Karzai and U.S. leaders have made attempts to deal with its leaders diplomatically, holding formal talks with Taliban representatives on several occasions.  Holding peace conferences would be a natural approach for most leaders facing a hostile government, but the Taliban is not a legitimate governing body (and was hardly recognized as one while it was still the leading Afghan power from 1996 to 2001); therein lies the problem.

On one hand, the United States can hardly ignore the reality that the Taliban still retains control in many areas.  Progress can only be made by accepting and confronting the actual situation.  However, dealing with the Taliban as if they are a legitimate governing body has unwanted implications.  It grants the group official recognition and elevates its status despite the fact that it no longer has any authority to govern.

This balancing act led to a considerable amount of political strife when the Taliban recently opened an office in Qatar.  The administrative building was accepted by the United States as a necessity to facilitate ongoing negotiations and talks with Taliban representatives; nevertheless, many remained wary of granting the group diplomatic recognition.  Their concerns proved valid as the Taliban quickly began to overstep, using the building to display the flag and name under which it had ruled over Afghanistan.  Naturally, Afghan leaders and many others were outraged.  The chance of any peaceful resolutions emerging from the new Taliban office quickly dimmed, and the building has since been indefinitely closed.

The Qatari incident illustrated how easily something as simple as recognition could escalate the diplomatic situation with the Taliban, especially as the group is almost certain to attempt to leverage as much power as possible out of any opportunity that it can seize.  Unfortunately, the closing of the only permanent means of maintaining political discourse with the Taliban has proved how difficult it is to conduct negotiations with a body that has no official offices or delegates.  There is no clear solution to the problem; the U.S. must essentially choose between partially validating the Taliban’s claims to power in hopes of progress or being unable to conduct effective negotiations with the group and having almost no diplomatic interaction with Taliban representatives.

There are valid arguments on both sides; however, it is likely more advantageous (albeit somewhat inconvenient) for the United States to avoid granting further recognition to the Taliban.  As events in Qatar showed, attempts to be diplomatic with the Taliban will not dissuade them from attempting to seize power.  If the Afghan government is weakened (a valid concern with a presidential transition in the near future), the Taliban will not hesitate to reestablish control.  Therefore, the United States must focus on establishing and maintaining solid relationships with Afghanistan’s new leaders, hopefully allowing for continued involvement of American military support.  Attempting to negotiate with the Taliban would likely harm relations with the Afghan government; ultimately, a strong alliance with the nation’s legitimate leaders is more valuable than a chance to converse with its enemies.

Treating the Taliban diplomatically could also set a dangerous precedent for foreign relations.  While it was once a governing body, it is now very similar to the terrorist organizations that have taken control of remote regions in Pakistan and other countries.  If the United States begins to treat the Taliban as a legitimate group, it may find itself having to negotiate with other organizations that claim to be governing bodies as well.  This situation would be difficult to handle under current circumstances, but could be made even worse should a group such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known for violence and extremism) gain control of a city or region.  If the U.S. deals diplomatically with the Taliban, it would likely be expected to take the same approach to any other group claiming governance.  The potential harm of such a situation far outweighs any small gains that may or may not be made by holding talks with the Taliban; therefore, diplomatic recognition should be reserved for legitimate governments alone.


McKirdy, Euan. “Who’s Running? The Candidates Vying to Be Afghanistan’s next President.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 06 Apr. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/world/asia/afghan-elections-candidate-profiles/index.html?hpt=wo_c1>.

Apr 14

Wife Carrying

Sonkajärvi, Finland

Most cultures recognize and celebrate the importance of marriage in a number of largely similar practices.  The long-standing customs of celebrating anniversaries and holidays designated for doting on spouses are traditions shared by many nations.  However, an extremely unique way for married couples to celebrate their unions was created by the Finns as recently as 1992.  It combines wedlock with a healthy dose of competition and plenty of beer.

Wife carrying (eukonkanto in Finnish) is strictly a couples’ sport.  Partners traverse a series of three obstacles over a 253.5 meter course; the distance seems to have been arbitrarily chosen.  Two of the obstacles are dry (often log barriers, bales of hay, or fences) while the third is wet (and consists of meter-deep water).  The track itself, originally composed of rock and now (for the purpose of safety) made of sand, further increases the difficulty of traversing the course.


The annual competition and many of its rules are certainly bizarre, perhaps a reflection of their largely undefined origins.  There are several theories about what inspired the first wife carrying competition; the most popular involves an infamous thief of the nineteenth century.  Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen and his fellow bandits lived in the forests of Finland, emerging from the trees and raiding villages for supplies and, according to legend, wives.  This may be why competition rules do not require that male competitors carry their own wives; it is permissible to compete with a neighbor’s wife or one “[found] further afield” if desired.

While the sport appears most demanding of the men carrying their wives, it is equally difficult for female competitors.  A wife can be carried in any fashion, which has led to some unique approaches.  The most notable is the Estonian carry, named for the nationality of the competitors who first successfully employed it.  It requires the wife to hang upside down from her partner’s shoulders, a position that takes as much strength and endurance as the carriers’ task.  Furthermore, being carried over obstacles does not always go smoothly; competition rules require that wives wear helmets because of the frequency of drops and falls.


Two teams run the course at a time, making each heat of the competition more competitive in nature.  Couples are truly racing against the clock however, with the winning team determined simply by the time taken to complete the course.  Dropping one’s wife incurs a fifteen second penalty, a rule created to ensure that technique remains an important element of competing.  The Finland competition typically draws thirty to forty entrant couples each year, with many spectators drawn by the prospect of entertainment and abundance of beer.

The brewed beverage is a staple of the Wife Carrying competition, perhaps a toast to the drink of choice of the thieves who inspired its creation.  First prize, awarded to the fastest couple, is the wife’s weight in beer.  This makes competing an even more challenging balancing act for the wives (forgive the pun); they must be light to gain speed but as heavy as possible if they want to maximize the benefit of a victory.  Regardless of the outcome, however, all in attendance find good times and beer readily available.


Apr 14

Unit Seven: Issue Brief Draft

This issue brief addresses the issue of overcrowding in the federal prison system.  I am still in the process of revising and constructing the infographics, as well as finalizing the notes.

The Cost of Overcrowding


In light of the recent economic recession, the United States government has repeatedly made sweeping efforts to curb unnecessary spending and increase efficiency.  Numerous programs have been cut or restructured in attempts to reduce their cost to the American taxpayer.  Nevertheless, one exorbitantly expensive federal program has remained largely unaltered in recent years, despite the possibility of considerable savings.  This is the federal prison system, already plagued by overcrowding and burdened by increasing demands on its limited capacity.

-infographic: expenditures

The potential savings from the nearly $7 billion spent in federal prisons each year are too promising to ignore.  Reducing overcrowding would free existing government funds and thereby lighten the burden on American taxpayers.  To achieve this, policy makers have only two options at present: undertake the costly expansion or construction of facilities and thereby create the need for a greater number of trained staff members, or begin working to counteract the inflation of prison populations.  In the long term, only the latter of these is truly viable.  A variety of plausible solutions to the problem of overcrowding have been proposed, however, these proposals must be explored sooner rather than later.  The government cannot wait for another economic crisis to focus on frugality, especially in an instance with such broad opportunities for savings.  Acting to cut costs now will continue to aid the recovering economy and ensure economic stability in the future.

The Consequences of Overcrowding

The thought of inmates having to share cells and surrender other comforts because of the swelling populations in federal prisons is of little concern to most Americans.  Few members of the general public worry about the living conditions of the thousands of convicted criminals serving their sentences.  However, overcrowding can have an extensive impact on the operation of a prison, negatively affecting both inmates and staff in a variety of ways.  The inefficiencies that arise from the overcrowding problem amplify its cost to the government and, consequently, the taxpayer.

-infographic (cost of housing inmate vs. average household income)

Although they do serve to protect the public from criminals, U.S. prisons are intended to serve primarily as correctional facilities in the majority of cases, reforming those inmates who will eventually be released and rejoin the public.  For these individuals, maintaining an environment that can foster reform and facilitate their progress is paramount to the correctional aspect of the federal prison system.  Unfortunately, overcrowding often serves to undermine this goal.  In order to hold populations that exceed their capacities, prisons have been forced to sacrifice many of the elements vital to the psychological process of reform that inmates undergo.

The most significant effect of overcrowding on individual inmates is the increased demand on limited resources.  With prison budgets already stretched thin, only the bare minimum is allocated to address rising populations.  This means that the availability of inmate programs, particularly opportunities for rehabilitation and education, is seldom increased to meet the demands of a larger population.  These programs best prepare inmates for life after their release, and limited access has increased the likelihood that former convicts will be without the necessary guidance or skills to avoid returning to lives of crime.  Consequently, the number of repeat offenders has increased, thus perpetuating the overcrowding problem and leading to more costs for the American taxpayer.

Overcrowding can also have more subtle effects on prisoners.  Just as the availability of certain programs is often restricted by population growth, access to other resources is also limited.  Everything from library books to something as simple as space in the facility must be shared between a greater number of individuals; in many cases, this leads to psychological stress and anxiety.  Such stress can have a variety of adverse effects on inmates; the most troubling, however, is the prospect of it leading to agitation and thereby acts of violence.  Prisoners being held in facilities that are beyond their capacities find themselves in much closer proximity to other inmates at all times of the day; this increases the number of possible victims should a violent encounter occur, forcing inmates to be extremely cautious and staff members to be particularly vigilant.  Furthermore, overcrowding requires that many inmates share cells, and an alarming number of prisoners report that they live in fear of their cellmate.  Therefore, they feel threatened not only during meals and recreation among the general population, but also when they should be able to rest in relative safety.  This other face of the stress issue, that experienced by potential victims, is not only equally detrimental to the psychological process of reform, but also poses just as much threat of violence should an inmate act out of desperation or fear.

The many drawbacks of overcrowding for inmates are, of course, only one side of the issue.  The staff members who oversee and run the U.S. federal prisons on a day-to-day basis are also harmed by increasing populations.  The mounting responsibilities of operating beyond capacity seldom come with reinforcements or added compensation; the increased workload is left to the same number of employees earning the same wages.  Unfortunately, this demanding workload also entails a considerable amount of danger.  Increasingly outnumbered prison staffs must continue to maintain order and security using protocols inadequately designed for their current circumstances.  The increased job demands and threats to personal safety can lead to stress and fatigue among prison employees, which greatly increases the chance of a critical mistake being made.

Infographic: staff to prisoner ratio

One can plainly see that the intertwined psychological and physical impacts of prison overcrowding, both on inmates and staff members, are part of a cycle.  Rising stresses contribute to more problems, which in turn fuel stress; all the while their initial source, swelling populations, continues to grow unhindered.  This detrimental cycle cannot be broken under current procedures.  Of the existing options, augmenting facilities and staffs or eliminating the problem of overcrowding, only the latter is both affordable and viable in the long term.

Areas for Improvement

In order to effectively and efficiently address the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons, the source of the problem must be clearly identified.  In reality, there are a number of interrelated factors contributing to the growing populations of inmates throughout the United States.  While it could be argued that inadequate facilities with limited capacities are the issue, expansion of the prison system not only promises to increase both short and long-term costs, but fails to offer any solution to the continued growth of inmate populations.  Therefore, those factors directly contributing to this growth should be examined with priority over the physical limitations of the existing prison system.


Judicial Problems

The problem begins shortly after a felon is convicted, arising at the point of sentencing.  In varying efforts to ensure that the judicial system was impartial and unbiased, strict policies were set regarding the sentencing process.  Unfortunately, many of these policies have had unforeseen and undesired effects that now contribute to overcrowding.  For instance, minimum sentences were set for some criminal acts, leaving judges no leeway regardless of extenuating circumstances.  This means that even those criminals a judge may deem no longer a threat to the community must still serve at least the minimum period of time prescribed to his or her crime, leaving some convicts in prisons much longer than they would be if judges were permitted to exercise their discretion in terms of sentencing.

Similarly, the institution of harsher penalties for certain crimes and the elevation of some crimes to higher felony classes have led to longer sentences for inmates in cases that would have seen them out of the prison system considerably earlier in the past.  Furthermore, the possibility of having a sentence shortened as a reward for good behavior has also been eliminated to a certain extent for many inmates.  Just as some crimes now carry longer sentences under new laws, many also incur a minimum time to be served by the convicted.  This concept was implemented to ensure “truth in sentencing,” but it has cemented the effect of longer sentences on overcrowding by reducing the number of inmates eligible for early release.

The number of former inmates returning to prisons also contributes to unnecessary population growth.  No argument can be made against repeat offenders, particularly those who show flagrant disregard for the law, receiving more severe sentences for successive violations of the law.  Nevertheless, many of those returning to prisons are re-incarcerated as the result of minor infractions.  Just as the penalties for violating certain laws have become more severe in recent decades, so have those for violating parole.  Unfortunately, a slight breach of parole terms is now more likely to send a former inmate back to prison, once again preventing prisons from escaping the problem of overcrowding.

Social Problems

Factors contributing to rising populations in prisons also exist outside of the judicial system.  Several social elements also play a significant, albeit less direct, role in the issue.  It is a sad reality that those facing poverty are more likely to turn to crime.  Recent economic hardships can therefore account for a percentage of prison population growth.  Unfortunately, however, even as the economy shows improvement, a large number of Americans continue to live in poverty, their situations made inescapable by cuts to welfare and aid programs.  Similar cuts to rehabilitation programs also contribute to prison overcrowding, as unavailability of affordable treatment options increases the likelihood of conviction for those suffering from addiction to illegal substances.  Unfortunately, the impoverished are also more likely to use and become dependent on these substances.

Poverty also plays a role in the judicial system, despite efforts to make it less biased.  Defendants without financial means often cannot afford to post bail, and therefore await their trials in prison, unnecessarily contributing to the already overgrown population.  They are also more likely to depend on a court-appointed public defender, many of whom are burdened by massive caseloads and therefore cannot provide thorough and dedicated service to each client.  This makes the likelihood of conviction, and consequently the population of the prison system, increase.

Although the presence of multiple contributing factors, especially some that seem largely insurmountable, may make resolving the overcrowding issue appear to have little chance of success, it provides an advantage for policy makers.  Because many of the roots of overcrowding are independent of one another, they allow for multiple approaches to be taken at the same time without risk of overall failure should one be unsuccessful.  Simultaneously undertaking more than one solution would expedite the resolution process, providing more immediate relief to the overburdened prison system and its staffs.

Potential Solutions

It has been widely accepted that expansion will not resolve the problem of overcrowded prisons in the long run; therefore, a broad range of potential solutions addressing the contributing factors previously discussed have been proposed.  First and foremost, the minimum sentences attached to many crimes should be reduced.  While their implementation has likely led to more uniform sentencing, it has not necessarily ensured more just sentencing.  Judges should be granted more discretion so that sentences can be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Where appropriate, the possibility of early release should also be made available to inmates who exhibit good conduct, regardless of the length of their original sentence.

Efforts should also be made to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison after their release.  While parole violations should not be taken lightly, they should not immediately lead to re-incarceration either.  The parole process should focus on reform and utilize other, more constructive penalties, such as community service, for first-time violators.  Support and rehabilitation programs must also be supported to aid the post-release reformation process.  Finally, the government should focus on reducing the circumstances that lead to crime.  A portion of the money saved from restoring federal prisons to their operating capacities should be allocated for welfare and aid programs or other prevention programs.  Available funds should also be used to augment the existing education programs offered to federal prisoners, decreasing the likelihood that they will commit another offense out of necessity.

These proposals are designed to improve upon existing systems with little or no need for initial investment.  Much can be achieved simply through revision of current practices; savings can then be utilized to further the impact of the reforms already made.  Ultimately, despite the daunting nature of the problem, judicial and related social reforms will lead to reduced prison populations and better allocation of the funds provided by the American taxpayer.

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