Friday, November 30, 2007

'08 or Bust

When it comes to deciding upon presidential candidates, foreign policy pretty much dictates my decision of who I will choose. Especially now, more than ever, when I see foreign policy as being one of the most critical issues that the United States should concern itself with (that and global warming of course). Well the Citizens for Global Solutions recently launched a website '08 or Bust dedicated to the current candidate's foreign policy views. People have posted quotes, videos, and other forms of info on particular topics that shed light on each candidate's (at least those willing to share) foreign policy. Anyways it's a great guide if you don't know much about your prefered cadidate's foreign policy positions/beliefs, so check it out.


Biologist Robert Full at UC Berkley gave a recently posted talk at TED which is truly fascinating. He shows stunning videos of different types of feet and their functional capabilities, from the ant's sticky pad to the cockroach's spiny hook, from the geko's adhesive hairs to the basilisk lizard's paddling foot: feet which have all been biologically designed to promote momentum, overcome challenging terrain, climb vertical surfaces, and accomplish various other amazing tasks. Full and a number of other biologists and engineers have been inspired by these naturally designed feet and have attempted to synthesize these natural designs by applying them to the field of robotics and in so doing ended up creating a few of their own exciting designs. Anyways definitely check out his talk below:

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Jill Sobule

When I first watched this video my initial impression was that Jill Sobule was a little creepy, but had a pretty voice, then I watched it a couple more times and I became hooked. Anyways see what you think. I guarantee that if you watch this vid a couple of times you;ll fall in love with the song.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An Appeal To Your Altruism

So I have a big paper due Friday for my PoliSci class and I only just finished typing out my first draft of this essay, and so I thought it might be a good idea to go ahead and just post it here and perhaps get some feedback or even better someone to edit parts of it, before, I, myself, had to...its pitiful yes, but I trust that the readers of this blog are the most humanist of humans, the most altruist of agents, so I hopefully Ill get a few responses. Keep in mind this is rougher than a rough draft, needs much butchering, and may not even be coherent, but if you can get to the end of it without pulling all your hair out, then you will receive a modest prize in the mail. ; - )

Anyways here it is. (I'm almost too embarrassed to post it, since I am sure it is probably riddled with grammatical errors and mistakes...oh well, at least my opening paragraph is pretty f*ing sexy.) Enjoy:

Essay Outline

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

Eleanor Roosevelt

The modern day conception of ‘human rights’ is substantially different from the conceptions that have dominated the past. However today's notion of human rights, that every human has equal and inalienable rights, did not emerge serendipitously. It is the heir of a genealogy of thought that can be traced as far back as ancient Greece, passed down to the succeeding generations and civilizations, adopted and adapted, modernized and molded to each historical context, each time becoming more robust, more inclusive, and ultimately more attractive to humankind across the globe. There have been many obstacles, myriad debates and controversies, that human rights has faced during its development, but each time it has been persistently consistent at aiming towards and achieving consensus and building upon the overlapping layers of agreement. Today the concept of human rights faces two seemingly insuperable obstacles. The first obstacle concerns the very proposal of universal human rights; there is a polarization between human rights’ universal prescriptability and its culturally biased relativity. The second obstacle concerns the practicality of human rights; there is an immense challenge required to uphold the protection, the promotion, and the implementation of these inalienable and naturally inherited rights. These two obstacles could be the last two hurdles the concept of universal human rights has to overcome, but they could also be the two hurdles that ultimately trip up and prevent the concept of human rights from ever achieving a global consensus. But before I address these, more modern day, issues, I think it is pertinent to the discussion to look back at the historical track of human rights and trace its development, its birth and evolution, up to present day. By looking at human rights under this historical lens of development I hope to build a more clear and accurate understanding of the concept that is universal human rights.

The genealogy of human rights has a long ancestry in numerous civilizations and cultures, but most scholars trace its origins to ancient Greece. One train of thought that is often pointed to in tracking the development of human rights is the philosophies of the Greek Stoics. However it is important to note that while the Stoic’s philosophies relate to human rights, their conception of a human’s rights is starkly different from our conception of it today. The Stoic’s conception of human rights was primarily concerned with the laws that nature endows upon man, to which he should be judged, and act in accordance with, in order to be in a state of harmony with nature. These natural laws were upheld by the gods, as is clearly illustrated in Sophocles’ famous Greek tragedy Antigone, in which the main heroine, whose name is the title of the play, is angered at King Creon’s recent declaration concerning her recently killed brother Polyneices, because she feels the declaration—t hat her brother committed treason and should not be buried in soil—was against the will (or the law) of the gods (SOURCE). This concept of natural laws to which man is to act in accordance with and is granted certain rights because of, was later embraced by, elaborated upon, and spread by the Romans. The Roman jurist Ulpian, for example, stated that “natural law was that which nature, not the state, assures to all human beings, Roman citizens or not” (SOURCE). It was not until after the medieval ages, most evidently during the 17th and 18th centuries—the enlightenment era, when man became rather obsessed with flattering himself—that natural law would come to be associated with natural rights, and the hitherto ‘duties’ of man that were part and parcel of natural law were deemphasized allowing for the ‘rights’ of man to step into the limelight of European thought.

One of the main axles of this great shift during the Enlightenment era was the British theorist John Locke. According to Locke there are certain inalienable rights that individuals inherently and (as Locke loved to say) self-evidently possessed as human beings—such as the right to life, liberty, and property. By connecting human rights with natural laws Locke was able to solidify and crystallize his claim that all humans possessed inherent universal individual rights. Many other theorists of the enlightenment era would help build upon this philosophy, such as Voltaire and Motesquieu, and the implications of these ideas would be profound.

As history would show, these self evident human rights undoubtedly fertilized the early seeds of revolution that would characterize the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, which shook up the very foundations of society. The idea of inherent naturally endowed human rights gave people a common justification to revolt against the status quo of corrupt and unjust monarchs, religious patriarchs, and political absolutism. The influence of these inherent human rights can be seen in a number of dramatic historical events, most notably: the Glorious Revolution in England, which was followed by the creation of The Bill of Rights; the American Revolution, which would produce The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, proclaiming in eloquently bold prose: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”; and the French Revolution, which resulted in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on August 26, 1789 (SOURCE). These revolutions sent reverberations around the world and would become shining examples for the aspiring peoples—who felt that they too possessed these inherent individual rights—to emulate. The concepts of liberty, equality, justice, and freedom, became the stars in the dark sky of political absolutism that people looked up to and used to navigate to achieve and reach their end goals. But these ‘rights’ were still far from being universal human rights applicable to all members of the human race. For example in the writings of Aristotle or later in the writings of the Catholic Saint and scholar Aquinas, for the former slavery and for the latter serfdom were seen as legitimate, which to our modern biases of liberte and egalite seem very il-legitimate indeed. Moreover the proclamations of these declarations were fairly grandiose aspirations vis-à-vis the social reality or context in which they were written. One might say that the concepts embedded in these documents were swallowed, but not yet fully digested, since there were still ethnic and racial inequalities in many of the societies that espoused and endorsed these declarations (and these inequalities would hang around for quite some time). Finally it should be emphasized that the scope of human rights during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was primarily focused on political and civil liberties—the freedom from rule, in the name of rights—like, for example, the abolition of slavery, and the development of social, economic, cultural, and universal rights as prominent priorities did not blossom until late in the 20th century (Birmingham p.2). But before we move to the twentieth century we should examine another important aspect that contributed to the continuing development of human rights: international travel.

Dating as far back as ancient times, but exponentially increased by technological developments (which made it more accessible and affordable), industrialization, and an interest in exploration, the migration of citizens and travel in general by citizens ultimately led not only to the spread of and interaction between cultures, but also to a need of developing rights, laws, and conventions which applied to foreign aliens as they traveled abroad. The natural rights and laws that were created and elaborated upon by such legal theorists as Grotius, Francisco de Vitoria, and Emmerich de Vattel, applied to both citizen and outlander, equally. However this notion seemed to apply only, as the old adage goes, ‘in theory, not in practice’ since it was usually only observed and applicable to the former, the colonial nationals or citizens, and the outlanders were (for colonial expansionist purposes) usually kept ignorant of these natural rights and laws for their humane treatment that they were said to inherently possess. During the 19th and 20 th centuries the application of these natural laws and rights to foreign citizens became prominent and as a result the promotion and protection of these natural rights began to be carried out by colonial states who applied it to citizens other than their own. Governments or regimes that oppressed, denied, or failed to recognize these rights to their citizenry became designated targets for invasion or intervention by the colonial states, which was now legitimatized by the stated goal of liberation and democratization. This movement caused a wave of political, economic, and military interventionism in places such as the Ottoman Empire, Syria, Crete, various Balkan countries, Romania, Russia, to name only a few (SOURCE).Moreover conferences were held, such as the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, and ever more prolifically in between and after the two world wars, in which treaties and international declarations that sought to protect certain racial, linguistic, and religious minorities were established. One of the key issues during this time period was the abolishment of slavery and the slave trade and various treaties, starting with the Treaty of Paris in 1814, represent this quest that ultimately culminated with the International Slavery Convention in 1926 (SOURCE). But other issues such as the trafficking of women and children, fair and just treatment of indigenous people, the prevention and control of disease, and rights concerning labor, such as fair pay and humane working conditions were also prominent (SOURCE).This trend shows that the rights of citizen and outlander were increasingly emerging into the rights of all human beings, a synthesis that would be crystallized and made concrete by the tragic events that took place during the 20th century.

Quite the paradoxical era, the twentieth century concluded with a series of substantial social accomplishments, but almost every decade during the era was characterized by horrific warfare, mass human atrocities, and economic hardships and depressions causing most of the people of the era to feel a certain poignant apathy towards the bleak, apocalyptic, and helplessly dire world in which they lived. I call this era paradoxical because while events internationally appeared futile to the human race and human rights, events on the domestic front (at least in North America and Europe) seemed very promising indeed, as there was a great resurgence of social movements by numerous minority groups who were ultimately able to accomplish significant gains in creating equal rights for themselves. Movements such as African civil rights, women’s suffrage, workers rights, trade unions, et cetera which were especially prominent and successful during this era. One of the most monumental developments in the history of human rights that took place during the 20th century was the creation of the United Nations, followed by the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Nations, the heir of the League of Nations, is an institution that was established after World War II for very much the same purposes as the League of Nations, and thus inherited many of the same aspirations, goals, and functions of the League of Nations. But its creation and relative success was primarily or at least in part due to what it learned from the miserable failures of the League.

After witnessing the egregious fighting of trench warfare during World War I, there was a consensus among nations that the failure of diplomacy, of political discussion and agreements, was what led to the horrific world war, a war which had accomplished little, besides massive casualties and ruined economies. It was in this context that the League of Nations emerged. Created and handed the seemingly insuperable obstacle of ending all future wars, the League of Nations would ultimately crumble and be disbanded because of its failure to accomplish this monumental task, as the outbreak of the Second World War would, like the previous world war, wreak havoc and cause enormous destruction on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. When the war finally ended and the egregious acts and atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were revealed to the world, the development of human rights was forever and profoundly changed. The revelations of the holocaust made it clear just how important it was to uphold and protect the dignity and rights of every human being, regardless of religion, race, and ethnicity. The community of nations seemed to be in a consensus that they must ensure that this horrific historical event would never take place again.

When the Second World War ended, human rights skyrocketed to the forefront of the global agenda. During the Nuremburg Trials, named after the city in Germany where it was held, an International Military Tribunal was set-up which punished high ranking Nazi officials for “crimes against peace” and “war crimes” and, setting a new precedent, “crimes against humanity” (SOURCE). This meant that International law now trumped domestic law, and so if you were an authoritarian dictator or a high ranking member of a government or military and you committed a crime against humanity, as defined by International law, you would now be held accountable and punished according to those international laws. This was revolutionary and caused a catalyst of interventionism by the international community in states that were perceived to be violating human rights by oppressing or systematically torturing and killing their citizens. Rwanda and Yugoslavia are two prime candidates of this new legal and international change. The president of the latter country, Slobodan Milosevic, was arrested and then detained in June 2001, by the International Criminal Tribunal of Yugoslavia (SOURCE). This was huge because it was the first time a leader of a country had been placed in physical custody by an internationally backed judicial authority. The Yugoslav tribunal would eventually charge him with ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ for his responsibility in the atrocities committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999, and the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina committed earlier by Serbian troops from 1992-1995 (SOURCE). In July 1998, the International Criminal Court was authorized, adopted, and enforced by 160 countries and in it was a statute explaining the role of this court system: to make judicial decisions in cases such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of genocide, and finally crimes of “aggression”, which was the only ambiguous concept of the statute in regards to International Law. There was, however, resistance to the creation of this court, most strongly voiced by the United States, who thought it was an invasion and violation of its lawful right of sovereignty (an issue which will be addressed later on).

In June 1945, the representatives of 51 countries met in San Francisco and signed the Charter of the United Nations. The charter begins with the collectively agreed upon affirmation of a “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small” (TEXTBOOK). It goes on to outline the purposes and goals of the UN, which, among other things, is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…[and] to achieve international co-operation…in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion” (SOURCE). The drawback of the UN charter in the modern context is that it has a binary set of conflicting interpretations. The “pledge” that is made my member states who sign onto the Charter, does not really tell us, in regards to human rights, whether or not it is a legally binding obligation as some argue it is, or merely an aspirational goal to be aimed at and hopefully achieved, as others argue it is (SOURCE). These disputes, however, have not caused the UN to become impotent and inactive. The historical record of UN action consistently shows its persistent effort to promote and protect human rights and to investigate and punish human rights abuses. But it must be remembered that the units that make up the UN, individual states, are not always concerned with human rights, and national interests and disputes often trump the human rights endeavor, preventing the promotional and protectionary mechanisms of the UN from working; which, ironically enough, is something that some member states often point to as demonstrable failures of the UN, failures which the UN is solely responsible for (it’s become a handy scapegoat and punching bag for nation states to vent their frustration at).

The UN Charter assigns the responsibility of spreading and upholding human rights to the General Assembly. This being the trunk then, there are also more individual branches such as the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Commission on Human Rights, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) which also and more pertinently assist in the promotion and protection of human rights. The second branch (which actually grows off of the first branch…sorry about the struggling metaphor), the UN Commission on Human Rights, is in charge of crafting the policy that the UN embraces towards human rights. The third branch, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is the official who is in charge of implementing and coordinating the human rights programs and projects that the UN is engaged in (TEXTBOOK).

The five pillars of human rights which have been built up on the solid foundations established by the UN Charter are: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and finally the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (TEXTBOOK). For the purposes and constraints of this essay we will focus on only the last pillar mentioned.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a monumental milestone in the development of universal human rights because it represented a set of internationally agreed norms, a consensus unlike anything that had come before it. Its primary focus was on protecting the rights of citizens from the “coercive capabilities of states” (TEXTBOOK), but it offered a wide menu of human rights, such as ‘the right to life, to due process of law, and to freedom of thought and worship; the right not to be tortured or enslaved; and “the right to a standard living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family” (SOURCE). But this document wasn’t without its critics. Many charged the UDHR of being too sweeping in its postulates, ambiguous, not implementable, and biased towards Western or European conceptions of human rights. These last two issues are the two I wish to cover in depth.

The argument that the UDHR is folly, because it lacks the ‘teeth’ or reliable mechanisms to enforce the promotion and protection of the rights it embraces, to me isn’t a very strong one. As Jack Donnelly puts it in his book Universal Human Rights, ‘the “can” in [the phrase] “ought implies can” [sic] refers to the physical impossibility; unless it is physically impossible, one may still be obliged to try to do something that proves to be “impossible”’ (SOURCE). There is no reason to think that we should abandon our aim of promoting and protecting human rights simply because it is currently difficult based on the mechanisms established in the UN body. The UN is a heterogeneous organization who’s fickleness and inability to successfully accomplish all of its goals consistently is due to the fact that the states, which make up the UN body and power, are unwilling to sacrifice their sovereignty for the cause of human rights. Cicero once said that “we are all slaves to the law so that we may be free,” but in the case of states this is inapplicable because they fail to see the value in this as they are preoccupied with their own safety and thus are unwilling to abide by international laws and agreements that infringe upon their sovereignty. Most states who violate the human rights established in the UNDHR usually wield this shield of sovereignty to protect themselves from intervention by other states, but the effectiveness of that shield is solely dependent on the power of the actor who holds it up. The sovereignty shield held up by weaker states and regimes almost always crumbles under the lance of more powerful states that are looking for a reason to further their interests, whereas states such as China, India, and the United States have been successfully able to avoid the mechanisms of human rights promotion and protection by hiding behind their sovereignty. The other major issue concerning universal human rights is the feud between individualism and collectivism, or more broadly speaking the view that morals are relative, not universal.

It is undeniable that the modern conception of human rights has been heavily influenced by the European intellectual tradition, or generally speaking, European culture, as can be seen by the emphasis on individualism and liberalism, and the result of this association has led many to argue that the modern conception of Human Rights is a coerced conception, one that the West has forced on the rest, and does not hold any larger universal truth, since morals are, after all, simply relative. The Bangkok Declaration, which was signed by 40 Asian governments, addressed this issue by arguing that the concepts of justice and freedom are based on “regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds”(Mullerson p.82). Both Asian and African countries also note that at the time of the UDHR, 1948, they were still under colonial rule and were not participants in the Declaration’s construction (TEXTBOOK). And African countries argued that the focus of human rights should be diverted from individual political and legal freedoms to a focus on the economic and social needs of the people (primarily the poor). “In their declaration, Africans claimed for themselves an absolute right to receive development aid from wealthy states, even as they sought to weaken the concept of absolute rights in the political sphere (TEXTBOOK). This division was so great that the entire universal human rights endeavor was nearly abandoned, since the argument of relativity prevented nations from agreeing on such things as the condemnation of torture. (NYTIMES ARTICLE). However these setbacks and disagreements over the universality of human rights were shown to be reconcilable by the 1993 Vienna Conference, a two week summit held by the UN, which forged a consensus and a declaration which represented the most robust and widely agreed upon human rights document to come from the international community. The conclusion reached by consensus was an agreement that there are certain fundamental, naturally endowed rights, that every member of the human species shares, thus solidifying the modern day conception of universal human rights.

There is still much friction between the universality and relativity of certain human rights, most notably female genital mutilation, but the historical record shows a persistent effort towards the continuation of finding areas of overlapping consensus, to strengthen, rather than undermine, the universality of human rights, because it is something all people and citizens, as members of the human race, can embrace and hopefully enjoy.

History has shown us what happens when we do not promote and protect these natural human rights and that is why the consensus amongst the international community on the continuation of developing and enforcing human rights is ever growing and increasing. Today we can see that regimes and governments who do not respect the international conception of human rights, will be ostracized, stigmatized, and in a growing number of cases, ousted by foreign intervention. Universal Human Rights may, in theory, be a bunch of culturally relative bologna, but the practically, that is, the implementation and enforcement of these human rights, has proven to be something that all nations are interested in striving towards and achieving. Will every state abandon its shield of sovereignty, be a ‘slave to international law, so that it can be free’ and safe? Will we overcome our culturally relative suspicions and reach a final consensus on the universality of our naturally endowed human rights? These are two of the major questions of our era and while the rational answer to both of these questions would appear to be an affirmative and optimistically hopeful ‘yes’, this answer is not guaranteed, as man has yet to prove that he is, indeed, as he is often thought to be, a rational creature. But I remain optimistically optimistic, since it is my opinion that morals and there subsequent laws are usually created by man to satisfy, not some truth, but a social purpose: to alter the irregularity, injustice, and sheer danger of man’s social environment, by crafting laws that promote peace and harmony, enforced by (ideally) a majority consensus, and protected and carried on by the next generation. This is a fundamental goal that all humans are interested in, regardless of their culture; a goal which all humans hope to one day achieve.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Faith 'n' Science

I've been so busy with papers and exams lately that I really haven't had time to scan the news, which means that I've fallen behind the crest of reactions to new articles and items in the media that cause a buzz amongst the blogosphere, like Paul Davies article Taking Science on Faith in the NYtimes, which brings up the argument that scientists have the same faithy relationship with science that theists have towards their theology.

In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

I personally think that Davies is pretty wrong headed in thinking that scientists base their claims on faith, but maybe Davies has a much looser definition of faith than I do. My defintion of faith is most accurately and eloquently described by Bertrand Russel who defines it as such:

"Faith" - the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.

This is the very antithesis of science. The scientific claim or theory with the most cred on the scientific street (yes im trying to make scientists sound cooler) is the one which stands on the highest mountain of empirical data or evidence. What makes a claim or theory attractive in theology is usually directly correlated with the rewards it offers if embraced, or worse, the justification it provides if you want to target and torture a minority group (thou shalt not suffer a witch to live was at one point, the John 3:16 of today's world--popularly recited and referred to).

Anyways Edge posted several reactions criticizing Davies' thesis which are worth reading. Most of the responses seem to align with me any my definition of faith:

1. Contrary to Davies' assertion, science is not based on "faith" that physical laws will apply forever, or in different places in the Universe. This is an observation—an observation that has not been contradicted by any other data. Davies is completely off base when claiming that "to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You've got to believe that these laws won't fail, that we won't wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour. " This is not a matter of faith. It's a matter of experience. In contrast, the tenets of religion are truly based on faith, since there is no empirical data to support them.

2. Davies claims that the "faith" of science is based on something outside the universe, like "an unexplained set of physical laws. " The lack of a current explanation for why the laws are as they are, however, does not make physics a faith. It only means that we don't have the answer. Indeed, Davies thinks we might be able to come up with an answer, one that does not involve supernatural intervention. So what, exactly, are scientists taking on faith here? What do we believe to be true without any evidence? I don't get it. -
Jerry Coyne

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sex In America

I was shocked to see that the discussion of sex (as opposed to the advertisement of sex)has finally started infiltrating the puritanical American media airwaves. The Charlie Rose show recently hosted a round table of guests on the issue, and although the conversation does mostly revolve around biological and nuero-scientific questions, since the topic of sex still makes Americans very uncomfortable, at least it's a start.

Anyways check out the vid below:

Silly Walks

I think I'm going to walk around like this today.

One thing that's cool about big cities is that strangers are incredibly indifferent to one another, so I'm pretty sure I could get away with this without any strange looks. If you read this post today you too should join me in silly walking. We'll start a revolution!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

From Picture to Vector

I came across this cool website today. You can upload pictures and then it vectorizes it for you (high res, medium res, and low).

Here's two photos of Montreal that turned out pretty cool after I put it through the vector process.






Harder Bodies Faster Stronger

Some people are either mad creative or they just have too much free time on their hands, then again it does seem like free time breeds mad creativity...anyways check out this choreographed home video of the Daft Punk song "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger":

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is Denying Denial Still Denial?

NYtimes has an interesting article up about denial.

"recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.

In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people."

On a tangential denial topic...

I can remember after my sister died a lot of people informing me about the stages of grief, the first being denial, and thinking at the time that denial was a pretty stupid term since I didn't deny what had happened, but it seemed applicable in that I wasn't quite ready to say that I had accepted what had happened. The days following her death felt very surreal and it took me a long time to get through the denial stage and in some ways I guess I felt better in the denial stage because it offered sanctuary from the acceptance stage that almost inevitably follows (as it is incredibly difficult to maintain the mask of denial in the ugly face of reality). When, every morning their missing from the breakfast table, everyday they're not at school with you, every afternoon they don't come home, and every evening they're missing from the dinner table and their seat sits empty and stares blankly back at you.

For me I felt like I wasn't emancipated from this type of grief until I accepted the fact that what had happened happened and now belonged to the past, and not to the forefront of my thoughts. If you don't relegate these traumatic experiences to memory I think it really afflicts your daily activities and the overall outcome of each and every day. You start to feel like every today is the same as yesterday, and the day before, and every tomorrow will be like today, so you sort of have nothing to look forward to because you feel like your future has been taken away. You become a resentful resistentialist, shrewd and even misanthropic, unable to change your ways and not willing to try. Until you realize that sorrow and despair are two very useless emotions...which certainly don't lead to happiness, but instead lead to the cessation of activity, which can be very dangerous indeed. But it took me sometime before I realized this.

As it became clearer and clearer to me that I was not making much progress on the happiness front I attempted to radically change my thinking and engage in more activities--preoccupations to take my mind off my grief. It works, but its a damn slow process. Taking up an interest in the world and trying to figure it out was what helped stimulate me most, but I'm sure its not the same for everybody. But if you can find some hobby, some activity that you find enjoyable or pleasurable that's key, because it's something that you control and something that can never be taken away. That was how I escaped the gravity of grief, but some aren't as lucky and others cannot relate, because for some it is simply biological, while others psychological, but it seems like everyone has to deal with depression to some extent and sharing personal experiences and offering solutions I think is worthwhile. We shouldn't isolate our experience thinking that we alone bear a certain burden, rather we should share it with others and try to provide (silly metaphor alert) road maps from our own bush whacking experience of personal exploration that can help others navigate the rough terrain much better. Anyways that's just my two cents.

Tuesdays With Mary Douglas

I came across this brief, but wonderful interview on youtube with British anthropologist Mary Douglas and thought it was worth sharing with you.

I wrote a little anthro nugget of information, a short paragraph, which sort of elaborates a bit more on what she is talking about (posted below):

This brief, but exceptionally telling interview on youtube with Mary Douglas reveals quite a bit about this distinguished British anthropologist. Associated with the symbolic anthropology approach, Mary Douglas’ work focuses on the meaning that people give to their reality and how this reality can be observed in the behaviors and cultural symbols of that people. In the beginning of the interview she says that she was very interested in cognition and that this interest led her to look at cognition and society, specifically how the mind relates to the culturally constructed reality that it comes into contact with. From her research Douglas reaches the conclusion that, as she puts it in the interview, “the mind gets a lot of discomfort from seeing things that don’t fit the categories that people are using for thinking about them.” She mentions that this is Durkheimian and Maussian, since it is very structural functional, and in keeping with that approach Douglas in her works such as Purity and Danger argues that these fuzzy in betweens that don’t quite fit into binary social categories of distinction are automatically adopted into taboo and form ‘impure’ moral attitudes in the minds of people, or as she puts it in her book “taboo is a spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe… taboo confronts the ambiguous and shunts it into the category of the sacred”. In the interview she mentions that her interpretation of Leviticus focused too much on cognitive categories and failed to do what she intended: divert the intellectualist approach of the study of religion to a “behavioral intellectualist” approach that focuses on or emphasizes interactions through the use of symbols.

TimesOnline had a nice obituary dedicated to her, written two days after her death, which I recommend reading. She truly was an exceptional scholar and shining intellect of her time.

Competitively Selfish

Blogger over at Cognitive Daily has an interesting post up, which includes interactive voting tabs that you can click on, looking at reciprocity scenarios or games and what decisions people tend to make under certain conditions. Anyways click here to read more.

Plans For Pakistan

When I come across articles like this one, written by--two very well known foreign policy think tankmen--Fredrick Kagan of AEI and Michael O' Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, I become downright perplexed and seriously wonder what information these guys are reading. I try to consolidate my perplexities by telling myself that perhaps they just forgot a certain crucial prefix, namely -im, before their 'possible' plan...but alas no, it appears that they said what they meant and meant what they said.

From the NYtimes Op-Ed Page:

One possible plan would be a Special Forces operation with the limited goal of preventing Pakistan’s nuclear materials and warheads from getting into the wrong hands. Given the degree to which Pakistani nationalists cherish these assets, it is unlikely the United States would get permission to destroy them. Somehow, American forces would have to team with Pakistanis to secure critical sites and possibly to move the material to a safer place.

For the United States, the safest bet would be shipping the material to someplace like New Mexico; but even pro-American Pakistanis would be unlikely to cooperate. More likely, we would have to settle for establishing a remote redoubt within Pakistan, with the nuclear technology guarded by elite Pakistani forces backed up (and watched over) by crack international troops. It is realistic to think that such a mission might be undertaken within days of a decision to act. The price for rapid action and secrecy, however, would probably be a very small international coalition.

These guys clearly have been watching a little too much 24 lately, because the above plan is something that could only happen in a Hollywood script.

As Karl Sagan used to say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"... only in this case it is: "hopelessly dire scenarios require helplessly desperate solutions"... and you can quote me on that.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Backyard Slingshot

God this looks fun.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The One Night Stand

It was Friday night and the weekly woes that had been overcome needed to be forgotten. A bar, that sanctuary from stress and thought, was in order. Numbers were dialed, suggestions were offered, conclusions thus made, and plans were ultimately established.

The bar was selected and we marched en masse to the protected castle of liquor and beer. “ID please” said the looming tower of a man who guarded the gates, his face long and horslike. I wielded my wallet and produced my ID and was allowed to pass. The poignant smell of beer immediately filled my nostrils; the undecipherable chatter of conversations rattled freely off the walls, while glasses chinked together, and a live band played to an inattentive audience in the dimly lit, cozy and close quartered room—ah this was a bar!
I walked up to the decidedly attractive, rosy-cheeked bartender and pursing my lips firmly together, as if pulling back the bolt on a crossbow, released the word of my desire into her little question mark curled ear: [B]eer.

“What kind?” she replied rather bluntly, clearly failing to recognize that I wasn’t here to pleasure my palate with toothsome beers—I was here to get drunk!
“Whateva’s cheapest” I averred back to her.

She turned away from me and gripped the Moosehead stout with about the same lewd avidity as a hooker who grips a paying customer’s cock, professional and uninterested, and turned back to me and thrusted the golden gleaming glass of beer in front of me in exchange for a single sheet of paper which had colorful patterns and a handful of tens written on it. I raised the glass of beer in reverence to my lips and opened my mouth to let the golden stream slide joyously down my throat. “Ahhh” I murmured in utter satisfaction, followed by a burp and a hiccup. After some time passed my shoes came into view at the bottom of my glass, which meant another beer was in order, so I ordered another, and another, and another…until pretty soon my speech was becoming noticeably slurred, my footsteps uneasy, and the girls surrounding me unbearably attractive.

The ones closest to me were so tightly encircled with their backs to me that they may as well have been a horde of wilder beasts protecting a calf. And to make matters even worse I also noticed that they were speaking Quebecois…

“Bonzhur” I said in my thick vulgar Americanized accent, thus expressing the extent of words I knew in French “can I buy you gals a round of drinks?” They giggled at first, then exchanged more French words and giggles amongst themselves, and then the female closest to me finally addressed my inquiry and simply said “Oui.” I bought us a round and commenced in the standard ‘what to say amongst strangers’ conversation procedures, occasionally making jokes (which were either lost in translation or me+beer=not funny, since most did not produce laughter), but despite our linguistic shortcomings both they and I were too drunk to care what was being said. I knew, however, that I was going to start needing to strategically aim my words and actions if I wanted to ‘get-to-know’ one of these girls better. The girl in the rear of the group had let down her guard and was quickly flanked by some other stranger, who quickly started chatting her up. I had to advance quickly or else lose to the other guys who were hovering around trying to divide and conquer. At that moment the girl nearest me was shoved even closer as a guy butted between her and her friend to get a beer, a clever move, since he then capitalized on his preciously conquered territory by asking the girl he had just divided from the girl nearest me if she wanted a drink.

“What’s your name by the way” I inquired since the small talk had worn off.
“Celine” she responded in a beautiful feminine French accent.

Then I think I asked her if her last name was Dion (a tale to tell my friends), which in retrospect probably wasn’t as witty as it had seemed at the time, and she tried to teach me simple French phrases which I disastrously failed at, but she found laugh inspiring. Meanwhile I was keeping a trained eye on her friends who were still preoccupied with other boys, so I decided to ask Celine if she was hungry and wanted to get some ‘poutine’ (the key to every drunken Canadian girl’s heart). She said oui and so we departed.

The night was cold but the beer warmed our bodies and dulled our senses, so it was bearable. As we walked, stumbled, giggled, and gurgled, down the cracked and uneven sidewalk littered with fallen leaves which made a crisp crackle when trodden on, I knew that I had her, that she was mine to be had…she was my concubine, my pet, mon possession. I marveled at her long and savagely wild blonde hair, her soft ivory skin, and her eyes, those beautiful green eyes which twinkled with a curious innocence.

We inhaled the cup of poutine in our crazed hunger, scorching our tongues in the process. What a pair of kids we must have appeared to be. Shameful adults stripped of their social mannerisms and strictly adhered to behaviors of sobriety by the despotic and inescapable rule of beer. After we finished our artery clogging meal we departed once again, but this time it was her turn to move, to choose our next destination, and decide how the night would end. Would she let the lewd avidity of my bishop conquer the chastity of her queen, or would she send some pawn out, some excuse of having to wake up early in the morning, to block my bishop’s rapacious advance. She asked if I wanted to come back to her place. Her squares were left open, her Queen was checked, my bishop advancing. We climbed the stairs to her first floor apartment our thoughts muddled by beer and our bodies flooded with youthful aphrodisia. She fumbled around for her keys, opened the door to her apartment, and our lips soon met. Her lips were warm and wet and our slippery tongues rolled over one another, hers on top of mine, mine on top of hers, always unable to pin the other. Vraiment un adversaire formidable!

She pulled me towards her and slowly retreated backwards leading my steps, in this labial dance, towards her shadowy bed. The bishop got his queen.

When I awoke I could see the light of the rising sun elegantly tip-toeing across the room, slowly making its way towards the bed, then crawling up the covers and over us, until it illuminated the entire apartment. I turned and looked at my sleeping beauty, my reine conquise, and thought how funny it was that two complete strangers could be so blindly led by lust’s commanding hand to find themselves together the next morning in the same bed. How succinctly odd it feels to be a guest in a stranger’s bed! If only I could tip toe as quietly across the apartment as that sunlight, I thought to myself. I could make my escape without the slightest disturbance, without waking her up. I lay still, trapped like a soldier on a land mine, fearful to move, and stared listlessly up at the cream colored ceiling. The cold stranger sleeping next to me tugged on the blanket and rolled herself up into a warm cocoon. Her golden hair formed flowing streams in the wrinkled crevasses of her covers. Her breathing was quiet and heavy. I made my move. I slipped off the side of the bed. My feet made contact with the cold hardwood floor first and then I dragged the rest of my body slowly across the bed in the same fashion that one peels a band aid off of a healed wound. I found a scrap of paper and a purple inked pen and scribbled out the following note:

last night was phenomenal. I didn’t want to wake you because you looked so peaceful and beautiful in your heavy sleep (and I don’t think I could have even if I tried because you ensconced yourself in your thick blanket!). I have to run to work, needless to say bathe and shave, so I can’t stay. Thank you for sharing your lovely bed with this unflattering stranger…perhaps we can do it again sometime. ; - )
Anyways enjoy the rest of your sleep!



I laid the note on her pillow where my head had formerly been and then quickly turned and let myself out. The walk home felt shameful since one can always tell who had followed lust’s temptatious calling into the trap of spending the night at someone else’s place by the disgruntled, disheveled, and disconcerted look on the hung-over faces of fellow early morning passerbyers. Sometimes there’s even mutual nods of recognition and smirks when your eyes meet, a voiceless exchange that basically says “yeah…me too.”

After about twenty more minutes of walking I finally reached the front steps of my apartment building. The elevator courteously carried me up to my floor. I keyed myself in, slipped underneath the blanket of my bed, and murmured c’est la vie before permitting gravity to close the heavy curtains of my eyelids and sleep, that mysterious spell, take the reigns of my thought.

Fast asleep and dreaming, I slept through the day, and awoke to the setting evening sun. I watched as the amber sunlight slowly seeped away, a receding tide on a sloped shoreline, taking with it all of the colors of the room. After a couple of minutes had passed by I decided it was time to get up and face the night.

My pieces had been moved back to their original squares and the game...was about to begin againe.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Students Attend Class in Cave

This made me laugh today. I thought perhaps they were taking Plato's Cave analogy a little too literally...Are they let out of the cave and into the light when they graduate?

"A general view shows the Dongzhong (literally meaning "in cave") primary school at a Miao village in Ziyun county, southwest China's Guizhou province, November 14, 2007. The school is built in a huge, aircraft hanger-sized natural cave, carved out of a mountain over thousands of years by wind, water and seismic shift. "

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Questioning Relativism

It's awful stories like this that make me seriously question, as an anthropologist, whether cultural relativism is something that should restrain us from interventionism.

"A court in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is punishing a female victim of gang rape with 200 lashes and six months in jail, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

The 19-year-old woman -- whose six armed attackers have been sentenced to jail terms -- was initially ordered to undergo 90 lashes for "being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the rape

But in a new verdict issued after Saudi Arabia's Higher Judicial Council ordered a retrial, the court in the eastern town of Al-Qatif more than doubled the number of lashes to 200."

While our values are undeniably relative to our cultural heritage, I do not think that that realization in and of itself discredits the universal validity or social applicability of those values' aims. Simply because individual rights is considered to be a Western value, to me, does not mean that it is something corrupt and only applicable to Western cultures...the west just happened to have the right historical context to be one of the first 'cultures' to uncover, outline, and legalize the realization that equality and individual rights is something worth while and worth pursuing, something that protects all humans from the intra-species hatred, injustice, and inequality, that has been the common theme throughout the history of mankind.

This is what the human rights movement is trying to and hopefully will change. And all this talk of cultural relatives, as if they only apply to the cultures in which they are found, is detrimental to the progressive movement of universal human rights.

But thats just my opinion. And I'm pretty sure it would be shunned by the majority in the anthropology community.

*Update: Just noticed that Cosmic Variance has a post on this same story, but adds another story showing that gays seem to have the same lashing fate in Saudi Arabia too.

About 50 people picketed Saudi Arabia’s embassy in London on Oct. 19 in protest against the nation’s reported floggings and executions of gay men.

On Oct. 2, two Saudi men convicted of sodomy in the city of Al Bahah received the first of their 7,000 lashes in punishment, the Okaz daily newspaper reported. The whippings took place in public, the report said.

But I am not just trying to single out Saudi Arabia here. These are just two particular examples of a more common human behavior of targeted group hatred towards other group differences which, unfortunately, seems to be universal.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Swarm Mentality

I just noticed that Carl Zimmer has a very interesting article (found here) in the NYtimes Science section on the study of swarms, schools, gaggles, and flocks.

By studying army ants — as well as birds, fish, locusts and other swarming animals — Dr. Couzin and his colleagues are starting to discover simple rules that allow swarms to work so well. Those rules allow thousands of relatively simple animals to form a collective brain able to make decisions and move like a single organism.

Deciphering those rules is a big challenge, however, because the behavior of swarms emerges unpredictably from the actions of thousands or millions of individuals

One of my favorite spectacles of nature, which I witnessed once while in England, is the majestically mesmerizing sight of starlings in flock. (I usually use them as a metaphor when trying to explain/convince people that individual parts, collectively, can create extroadinarily complex looking wholes)

Here's a video on youtube of starlings in flight (which, as Dave Barry would say, would be a great name for a rock band). Enjoy:

United (with Xenophobia) We Stand

Tartarize has a good post up on his blog commenting on (what I thought was) a very interesting article recently published in SciMag: The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War.

I highly recommend reading the article, however if you are pressed for time/don't have a subscription Tartarize has a pretty good--more laymen's argot/pragmatic--translation of what the article is basically saying:

"promoting a sort of tribalism and intergroup warfare, rejection, fear, and non-cooperation between the groups, the intragroup altruism becomes much more likely to be returned to the benefit of everybody (within the group). If you can isolate your group with respect to other groups, you both need to work together in order to succeed in these conflicts and can work together due to the much greater assurance that your gesture will be reciprocated...[sic]From a state of nature, where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short to a more peaceful altruistic world--the best path is via a small warring group where everyday is the day after 9/11. Where everybody is xenophobic and altruistic. Where you love your neighbor as yourself, but take slaves "of the strangers that do sojourn among you."

The best way to build up some trust within a group larger than your family is by forming a group, go around murdering other people, enslaving them and insuring xenophobia. This, oddly, leads to altruism. You keep people out and help people in, and can succeed in tough times and help in good times, and your entire group will be the better for it

Though this trend is sad and unfortunate, if you look at it amorally it appears, undoubtedly, to be the very mechanism in history that has slowly united us together into everlarger groups.

Which is why I'm (perhaps a little naively) optimistic about the future. I feel that as our enemies turn into frenemies, and our frenemies into friends, we have been slowly inching towards the end of war. Globalisation (with its economic incentive for peace) has forced us to reconcile our differences and we are slowly realizing that working together is undeniably the most optimum pursuit for everybody.

Which leads us to my subscription to the utopian dream of One. I would argue (somewhat confidently) that our historical directional arrow appears to be pointing this way. Whether or not, in the end, it will be a mutually respecting consensus of states who give fair and equal concern and respect to their citizens or a hegemonic ruling of one state over the rest, or worse the failure of either resulting in the extinction of our species and even planet via nuclear weapons, I have no clue, but I can only hope for the former, and end with the annoyingly true adage: "only time will tell."

Monday, November 12, 2007

Literary Device That Donates Rice!

So I recently came across this cool site which generates a word and then offers four associative/defining words that relate to the original and you have to guess (unless of course you know, in which case you select) which one is correct. According to the website for each word you get right 10 grains of rice will be donated to the U.N.

I managed to reach Vocab level 40 with a donation of 300 grains of rice. I'm not sure what the highest level is, but getting to 40 was rather challenging, and this is coming from me, Mr. word cognoscenti. ; - )

Anyways post your highest scores in the comment's section below. (Not that we should only play to earn the title of Dr. word cognoscenti, forgetting of course the greater cause: charity). I'm going to play a little more after I work on my paper for a while, so I'll see if I can beat my own record.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

You Gotta Fight, For Your Right, Toooo

have a few helpful aids while partaking in the solitary-vice of onanism*...?

What happened to the 'Support Our Troops' motto so vehemently espoused by the far right?

Via USA Today:

WASHINGTON — Ten years after Congress banned sales of sexually explicit material on military bases, the Pentagon is under fire for continuing to sell adult fare, such as Penthouse and Playmates In Bed, that it doesn't consider explicit enough to pull from its stores.

Dozens of religious and anti-pornography groups have complained to Congress and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that a Pentagon board set up to review magazines and films is allowing sales of material that Congress intended to ban.

"They're saying 'we're not selling stuff that's sexually explicit' … and we say it's pornography," says Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, a Christian anti-pornography group. A letter-writing campaign launched Friday by opponents of the policy aims to convince Congress to "get the Pentagon to obey the law," he adds.

On a tangential note there was a time period in America, referred to as "masturbation hysteria", when all sorts of weird and whacky, religiously affiliated ideas emerged concerning the horrible sinful, shameful, self-gratifying act of masturbation. People like Sylvester Graham (yes father of the graham cracker) or John Harvey Kellogg, (yes, Corn Flakes cereal inventor) who believed and argued in his books that masturbation could lead to blindness, epilespy, atrophy of the testes, heart disease, cancer of the womb (yes masturbation applied to ladies too), urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, extreme mental and physical deibility, oh and was the primary cause of acne. In his book Plain Facts For Old and Young he wrote "neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism."

Kellogg's and Graham's prescriped remedies--which were dieting (only 2 meals a day) and not eating meat--in order to avoid the temptation of masturbation were, however, much more kosher (from an adolescent boy/man's perspective) than some of the other more, umm, shall we say barbaric methods such as straitjackets, cauterization, or the Chastity belt, seen in the picture below:

Or Albert V. Todd's contraption which was "designed to prevent masturbation by inflicting electric shocks upon the perpetrator, by ringing an alarm bell, and through spikes at the inner edge of the tube into which the penis is inserted."

I can't even imagine that people would actually make their sons do this...Im glad Alfred Kinsey came along to tell us that there was no need for spike tubed, electric shocking, metal panties...cause otherwise I think I can safely say that I would have had a much more tramatic childhood compared to the few emabrassing incidents of 'being caught in the act'.

Wikipedia has an entire history of masturbation article which you can access here.
(I love the fact that the ancient Egyptians creation story was that the god Atum masturbated them into existence. God the Egyptians were cool.)

*I wonder if the word 'onanism' derived from someone who went oh no--splurt--and then decided to make it an -ism...

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fate: In Some Stories Is Fatefully Fatal

Aeschylus the "father of tragedy" was an Athenian tragic poet as well as playwright of popular Greek dramas such as Agamemnon, The Persians, Prometheus Bound, and Oresteia. The inspiration to write tragedy, according to his own telling, came one fateful day as a child when he was sent out into the countryside to watch grapes ripen and (not surprisingly) dozed off, at which point Dionysus, the Greek goddess of love, visited him and commanded him to write tragedies. So the very next day the obedient Aeschylus began to write his first tragedy and "succeeded very easily."

But, relevant information aside, my favorite tid-bit about Aeschylus is the tragic fate of his death. According to Pliny and Valerius Maximus, Ascehylus, who upon recently being warned that he would meet his death by something falling on his head, decided to venture out into an open field, where be believed himself to be absolutely safe under the trustful provisions of a clear blue sky, only to be killed by an eagle who released a helpless tortoise from its talonous clasps when it mistook Ascehylus' soft bald head for a hard, shell-cracking rock. (At the time it was common knowledge that eagles dropped tortoises on rocks to break their shells and access the fleshy meat, though I doubt anyone had ever witnessed it themselves).

As far as stories about death by falling tortoise go, I'm pretty sure that it is safe to say this particular tale is, as they say in Latin, sui generis. I've heard creation stories which rested on the backs of tortoises, one on top of the other, ad infintum, but this is the only story that I'm aware of in which a tortoise is used as a fatefully fatal flying projectile.

The ancient Greeks sure were good story tellers and exceptional myth makers.

Aeschylus was buried at Gela, where the following epitath (supposedly writen by Aeschylus) can be read on his grave:

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
Who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
Of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
Or the long-haired Persian who knows it well.

My Blog's Reading Rating

cash advance

I'm not sure how this is measured nor do I know the heirarchy of class, but I would assume/would like to flatter myself in thinking that 'genius' is pretty high up in tier.

Courtesy of A Blog Around the Clock

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Story Behind Tapioca

Bubble Tea (a name clearly simplified for the American market) is one of my all time favorite drinks. I can even remember the first time I had one...(dreamy memory sequence cue):
I was with a friend in Chinatown (DC) and he recommended that I try this quaint asian drink which he had recently discovered. I agreed, he relocated the place, I paid, and was then handed a nontransparent, white styrofoam cup, with a plastic lid and a colorful straw that was wider than my thumb. I rounded my lips and took a deep sip of what my tastebuds registered in this order: smooth, creamy fruit--WTF?! squishy, round, unidentifiably strange, string of balls which had the texture of large fish eggs!!! This of course signaled the reflex and chain reaction order to SPEW SPEW SPEW! I spat the drink out in front of me and my friend reacted with unfriendly laughter.
Friend: "Hahaha...Haven't you ever had tapioca before?"
Me: "No...what's tapioca, caviar injected with growth hormones?"

His explanation was basically tapioca was what's in that drink, it's tasteless, but texture rich, with a side of throat tickling. I took another sip reassured that it wasn't something fishy and found the drink incredibly delicious.

For those of you haven't yet enjoyed the abrosial mmm-ness of this drink or are just so culturally poversihed that you don't even have a clue what this drink even is, I, oh helpless reader, will try to describe it to you.

There seems to be two variations of the drink. The more popular one has the liquidy texture of a smooth milky tea, the taste of a fruity drink (usually its just one fruit like strawberry, coconut, mango, etc.), and gummy black, pearl-shaped orbs of tapicoa floating and swirling weightlessly around at the base of the drink.

The other is simply a change in liquidy texture, its more related to the icee family of fruit drinks, but its not quite as sugar food dye sweet as the icee you are used to getting at the cinema.

Anyways that established I have always been curious as to what, exactly, this tapioca substance was. Where did it come from, how was it discovered, was it a fruit, a plant, a synthetic creation of biotechnology, I wasn't sure and never really investigated these questions, because they weren't exactly questions at the forefront of life's other mysteries so they were relegated to the back files of my mind, but today I came across an entry addressing my aformentioned questions in a random book I picked up in the library by Stimpson called A Book About A Thousand Things

Here was the entry:

"Tapioca, a word of South American Indian origin, is the name applied to a vegetable food obtained from the starch roots of the poisonous plant known as bitter cassava, which is indigenous to tropical America but now widely cultivated in other parts of the world. According to Latin American tradition, the food vaule of cassava was accidentally discovered by a Spanish explorer lost in the jungles of Brazil. He had heard from the Indians that the sap of the cassava plant was highly poisonous, and preferring a quick death by poison to a slow one by starvation and fever, he ate a bowl of soup prepared by boiling cassava roots in water. Instead of dying he lived to tell the world how this pleasant and digestible food saved him from death. As a matter of fact the milky juice of the bitter cassava is highly poisonous and cannot be eaten in its natural condition without considerable danger, but the application of heat, as the explorer discovered, destroys the poisonous property."

Stimpson then goes on to describe how tapioca is extracted from the cassava root (or what is more commonly known as Yuca)

"After being thus separated from the constituents of the root the moist starch is spread on iron plates and exposed to heat sufficient, with the aid of constant stirring, to partly rupture the granules and cause them to agglomerate into the irregular pellets which, when cooked, become the hard, translucent tapioca used in puddings and soups [and bubble teas]."

Upon learning this new information the Yuca root has now elevated its status to become the quintessential food item I would request if I were marooned on an island, because not only is it delicious when dried out, but it also tastes good (after the requried process) in a blended fruit drink (and any postcard will show you that islands are known for being coconut plentiful).

I'm definitely going to challenge my usual Bubble Tea serving waitress' knowledge on tapioca the next time Im in her store, because I doubt she knows the true story behind those yummy gummy, squishy chewy, black and gooey, pearly balls*...

*(I think I can say with assurance that I am probably the first person to ever write that sentence.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

AAA Responds To HTS

Just noticed that the American Anthropology Association finally produced a statement on the US Military's Human Terrain System (which recruits anthropologists to assist their 'progressive' efforts in the regions they occupy).

I'll redirect you to two responses from fellow AnthroBloggers for all those interested:

In favor of and prolific posters on this issue: bloggers over at
Opposed to: the blogger(s) over at

I'm still on the fence with this issue, since I'm a prospective AFSA with an undergraduate degree in anthropology...

But I think Marx's famous quote could be pertinently changed to:

"[Anthropologists] have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

In my opinion your not going to change military policy and actions by writing in subscription journals and if you truly want to stop the egregious acts and culturally detrimental actions of the military you have to actually get engaged with it, learn the lingo, embed yourself within it, so you can not only understand it, but hopefully teach it the vaulable lessons that anthropology has uncovered over the years.

But that's just my two's a very tricky ethical question (as all ethical questions usually are).

The Superbowl of Particle Physics

There's a fantastic post up on Cosmic Variance on the Higgs boson, which is what scientists are hoping to discover after spending billions of dollars on the LHC at CERN, granted of course a black hole isn't created that inhales the planet...(just kidding according to Hawkings' formulas that is improbable, and if you can't trust him who can you trust).

I wish I could say more on this topic but I have a huge paper due tomorrow that I do not have the luxury of time to neglect.

You can find a peerty slide show of images of the Collider in this NYtimes article.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Spelunking In The Cave of the Unknown

Letter to Religion:

Dear Christianity,

Throughout history your theologian’s arguments have been based on such things as faith, un-knowledge, and the unknown, but thankfully science has been slowly illuminating these dark question-marks of religious sanctuary by continuously shining the light of inquiry and torch of explanation deep down into the depths of life's mysterious mine, exploring and uncovering the shadowy blanket of the unknown and leaving in its place a luminous wake of percipience and veritably knowable understanding.

For (theologians take note) the chief aim of Science is to plant a flag of explanation and understanding on the mountaintops of empirical data and not a flag of faith, which quells all further inquiry, in front of every deep question or seemingly bottomless mine of mystery which presents itself to us.

So please stop, I beg you, claiming god exists everytime you find a shadow of mystery to hide him in. It would be much appreciated. Thanks.

Your faithful non-believer


In the meantime the rest of us who have picked up on this pattern and apparently tacit fact can occupy ourselves with the enjoyment of watching the laudable efforts made by theologians to find unexplored caves of mystery to plant their flags of faith in front of. (whether quantum mechanics, consciousness, life before the big bang, etc. Caves of mystery which remain so until they are explored and exorcised of mystery by those irritatingly irritant spelunking (and debunking) party of scientists, with their pesky headlamps of inquiry…for faith cannot find comfort living in a world of knowledge.)

Technological Works of Wonder

I want this so bad...

Datamancer's Exquisite Vintage Looking Wind-up Laptop:

Here's another cool creation

And though its not a laptop its certainly a cool looking accessory

Iron mouse:

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Quantum Weirdness

I just came across this fantastic series (though at the moment there appears to only be three) on what I like to call quantum conundrums, the most infamous of which are addressed by Dr. Quantum, one of the foremost experts on quantum mechanics in the 3dimensional world, as you will soon see.


Law Of Attraction: Double Slit experiment

Dr. Quantum visits Flatland

And lastly--and to me what is the strangest phenomenon of all--Entanglement

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Forgiving is Forgetting

Just came across this on the recent vote in the UN General Assembly denouncing the US embargo on Cuba. The vote was unanimous184-4, the four being the US, Israel, Palau, and Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained.

We're currently watching a video in class on the Cuban missile crisis and the more I've learned about the whole affair (namely CIA involvement to overthrow Castro) the less my sympathy has been on the side of the US, so for me I just don't understand why we still have an embargo...

Plenty of youtube videos available on the web if you're interested.

I think I remember this one being a decent one

Bay of Pigs:
Part 1, Part 2

Changing Our Perspective Towards Africa

Over the course of history the continent of Africa and its inhabitants have taken on numerous images and meanings in the eyes of the Western world. It has been the “Dark Continent” a rugged land of exoticism and savagery, which caused a mass of European explorers and expeditions, adventurers and thrill seekers to migrate to the mysterious continent, who then wrote books and letters home which fueled the African trope of barbarism and primitiveness amongst the ‘civilized’ citizens of Europe. It has been a helpless continent, ravaged by war, raped by poverty, and pillaged by disease and hunger, undeveloped and salvageable only by the advanced wealthy civilizations who are capable of fixing and rescuing it, which inspired a call to aid and assistance, propagandized by the media and popularized by celebrities such as Bono and Angelina Jolie. But in more recent years Africa has taken on yet another image, a new meaning, particularly in the eyes of the United States, it has become a national security risk.

“Africa Emerges as a Strategic Battleground” is the headline of the article by Wall Street Journalist Frederick Kempe, who suggests that the true motivation behind the US administration’s recent significant increase of aid to Africa is to combat the spread of terrorism by eliminating potential regions or environments out of which terrorism tends to emerge and take root. This notion of an increasingly volatile national threat emerging in Africa stems from the characterization that “great swaths of Africa are lawless, corrupt and bitterly poor”, a characterization which produces the conclusion that Africa is, therefore, “an ideal breeding ground for extremists.” But the domino reaction does not stop there since this very conclusion inspires a solution offered by the US in the form of engagement and intervention. Thus aid and assistance by organizations such as the U.N., IMF, and World Bank are increased and the U.S. now has a comforting justification for meddling in the affairs of African politics, economics, and society (and the beat goes on).

In his article Kempe provides an acute quote, which sums up the new role Africa plays in US foreign policy, when he quotes U.S. Gen. James Jones saying “Africa plays an increased strategic role militarily, economically and politically…We have to become more agile in terms of being able to compete in this environment.” This mindset is clearly a binary, black and white one, since it implies that a failure to be ‘king of the mountain’ in Africa politically, economically, and militarily, would be a national security disaster for the U.S.—whose safety is now directly linked to Africa’s stability. And as US involvement in Africa increases, so, too, do its interests. “In the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa -- through which 15% of U.S. oil imports flow, a figure expected to rise to some 25% in the next decade -- Gen. Jones sees a more lasting maritime presence to protect against piracy and bunkering, or the widespread siphoning of oil from pipelines.”

In order to maintain its pursuit and protection of its regional interests the US must emphasize the popular characterization or meme of Africa being a victim of underdevelopment, a place that is ridden by poverty, lawlessness, disease and starvation, in order to justify its involvement within the continent. This is comparable to the priest who teaches his parish that they are all abhorrent sinners destined for eternal punishment, unless they accept God and Jesus as their saviors—only then are they saved. Or better yet, a person who walks around cutting people with a razor blade in order to sell them a bandage. The point is that the US offers a solution to a problem of its own-making!

Journalists such as Kempe and many others (if you don’t believe me just scan the news coming out of Africa and see if you notice a theme) assist and even promulgate this sentiment of the need to assist Africa, making it our obligation, because we are wealthy and advanced and they are poor and primitive. I will agree that equality is something to be strived for and we, members raised in Western culture, are obviously indoctrinated with these Lockean values, and as a result have a missionary zeal and sense of duty to go out and eradicate inequality and injustice in other countries, but we must be careful that these enthusiasms and zestful aspirations are not solely serving the interests of our state. For it seems true that in the 20th century the inherent values of individual equal rights, political representation, and social justice have all been merely side affects of the United States protecting and increasing its material interests.

If we continue to view Africa through the popularized view in the media and amongst the general public as being our sickly patient, who is helpless without us, then we will continue to feel justified in the political prescriptions we give and the economic remedies we offer. Africa will continue to be dependent on our aid and assistance and it will most likely never develop into a healthy, stable, and sustainable independent continent—it will, to carry the metaphor further, never get better. But if we change the way we see Africa, denude ourselves of the mischaracterizations and misconceptions that have plagued our policy decisions and attitude towards Africa, then perhaps, just maybe, we will start seeing Africa get its color back, its elan vital, and it will finally become the healthy, sustainable, and stable continent—which we so often forget—that it wants to be and not the Africa—supported by the mass media, journalists like Kempe, and the US administration, whose importance is solely constituted by its strategic significance--that we want it to be.

Article link found here