Friday, November 14, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It's The Economy, Stupid!

(click the picture to get a detailed view)
From GOOD Magazines comes this excellent graphic of the US economy from the 1920 to 2008.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Orthopraxy and the US Election

With the US presidential election coming up, the amount of political discussion has increased in my everyday conversation. The question that inevitably gets posed to me is "Who are you going to vote for?" I respond "No one, I'm not voting" With that reply usually comes a gaze of consternation, a spiel about how it's my civic duty, and/or a reproof about those who don't vote can't complain. I explain that it's not that I'm apathetic or lazy. It's that I don't like the idea of voting for the lesser of two evils and that none of the "third party" candidates are any better. Then I hear the statement that it is better to participate than not to at all. Is it?

Ask anybody on the street that if voting is a good thing, most warm blooded American would say yes. Most true[sic] democratic societies have celebrities or other appeals of authority campaigning for us to "Go out and vote" or "Vote or Die." But underneath this is something pernicious, the development of a orthopraxy or mindless participation. As defined by Jacques Ellul, orthopraxy is "an action that in itself, and not because of the value judgments of the person who is acting, leads directly to a goal [...]." Is action of little or no thought better than no action? I made my decision BECAUSE I took the time to research and understand what every candidate has to offer. But there are countless others out there who will be voting for someone based on a pretense of promises and shallow reasoning. How many people will turn out and vote for Obama because he is black or for McCain because he isn't?

Moreover, how many people look beyond the stump speeches, talking points, and placations by these candidates for what they really offer? For most Americans, they won't. But I can not fully rest the blame on Americans for doing so. Most of us are too busy to take time out of our fast-paced lives to sit down, research, and think. People are assaulted daily by so much unsubstantiated soundbites and political rhetoric diffused by the media to think critically. Ellul explains in detail:

If we look at the average man, and not at those few intellectuals whose special business it is to be informed, what do we actually mean when we say this man is informed? It means that, aside from spending eight hours at work and two more commuting, this man reads a newspaper or, more precisely, looks at the headlines and glances at a few stories. He may also listen to news broadcasts, or watch it on TV; and once a week, he will look at the pictures in some kind of news magazine (Time, Newsweek, etc.). This is the case of the reasonably well-informed man, that is, of 98% of all people.

Now, what happens next to a man who wishes to be informed and receives a great deal of news each day? First, straight news reporting never gives him anything but factual details; the event of the day is only always a part, for news can never deal with the whole. Theoretically, the reporter could relate these details to other details, put them into context and even provide certain interpretations–but that would no longer be pure information. Besides, this could only be done for the most important events, whereas most news items deal with less important matters.

But if you shower the public with the thousands of items that occur in the course of a day or week, the average person, even if he tries hard, will simply retain thousands of items which mean nothing to him. He would need a remarkable memory to tie some event to another that happened three weeks or three months ago.

Moreover, the array of categories is bewildering — economics, politics, geography, and so on — and topics and categories change every day. To be sure, certain major stories occasionally become the subject of continuous reporting for several weeks or months, but that is not typical.

Ordinarily, a follow-up story on a previous news item appears two weeks to a month later. To obtain a rounded picture, one would have to do research, but the average person has neither the time or desire for it. As a result, he finds himself in a kaleidoscope in which thousands of unconnected images follow each other rapidly. His attention is continually diverted to new matters, new centers of interest, and is dissipated on a thousand things, which disappear from one day to the next.

The world becomes remarkably changeable and uncertain; he feels as though he is at the hub of a merry-go-round, and can find no fixed point or continuity; this is the effect information has on him. Even with major events, an immense effort is required to get a proper broad view from the thousand little strokes, the variations of color, intensity, and dimension the paper gives him. The world thus looks like a pointilliste canvas — a thousand details make a thousand points. Moreover, blank spots on the canvas also prevent a coherent view.

Our reader would then have to be able to stand back and get a panoramic view from a distance; but the law of news is that it is a daily affair. Man can never stand back to get a broad view because he immediately receives a new batch of news, which supersedes the old and demands a new point of focus, for which our reader has no time.

Unfortunately, politics plays on this disadvantage. Voters turn out because politicians dangle a nicely-wrapped, superficial bag of "change" over there nose and a promise of solutions. No thought, no analysis. Mindless participation. Maybe I am wrong for not voting. But I'd much rather be an independent thinker who does not vote than be part of an orthopraxy which truly undermines democracy and freedom. At the very least, we would be better off if the catchphrase was "THINK then VOTE or DIE."

Update: Jon Stossel recently put out a 20/20 story along the same lines (video).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Darfur Brief

When one turns on the evening news or opens up a newspaper they are bound to hear or read a piece dealing with the conflict in Darfur. Many people around the world are upset as to what they see as an uninhibited genocide in the region. But many more are benighted to how the conflict came to be, who is fighting, and what courses of action are being pursued in Darfur. The answers to these points are deeply rooted and complex which lends to the problem that there is no simple solution to this crisis.
To fully understand the situation in Darfur, one must understand the broader historical and geo-political context of the region. Darfur is a geographically large region that lies in the western part of Sudan, sharing a border with Chad, Libya, and the Central African Republic. Darfur itself is divided into three states: South Darfur, West Darfur, and North Darfur. Nyala, El Geneina, and El Fashir are the capitals of each state respectively. Much of the population lives in relatively small villages made up of only a limited number of families. The economies of all three states are based on subsistence farming and cattle herding .

The problems of the current conflict in Darfur can not simply be collocated together under one root cause. There is a spectrum of reasons why Darfur is an dilemma in the status quo. Empirically, the situation in Darfur began to escalate when two rebel groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), organized in 2001 against the Khartoum government of Sudan. Both rebel groups cited similar grievances for their rebellion: socio-economic and political marginalization of Darfur and its people(s) . The two movements secured support/membership mainly from three tribes: the Fur, the Massalit, and the Zaghawa.

In 2003, both rebel groups began attacks on local police offices and government stations containing property and weapons. The Sudanese government, thinking little of the attacks, continued positioning their limited military forces elsewhere. In conjunction, talks of Chad’s involvement in the crisis came to surface. The Sudanese government accused the government of Chad of covertly assisting the rebel groups. Chad’s president, Idress Deby, denied such a claim. The rebel groups continued to mobilize their attacks towards installations in Kutum, Tine, and the military airfield in El Fashir. It is in El Fashir where several military aircraft were destroyed and many soldiers were killed. The Sudanese government was taken aback by the strength of the attacks and were forced to withdraw from Darfur due to their overstretched military stationed in South Sudan .

The Sudanese government, realizing its army did not carry the strength to oppose the resistance, began making deals with local tribes to assist in fighting the rebels. Tribal leaders were paid in relation to how many people they were able to provide. The majority of those who responded were Arab tribes without a homeland, escaping the desertification, and wishing to settle in the area. These recruits were to be known as the “Janjaweed,” a term signifying an armed bandit on a horse or camel .
The earliest attempt to end the conflict occurred in August 2003 when the President of Chad forged a meeting between the Government and the rebel groups. The JEM refused any involvement due to claims of Chad’s bias. On September 3, 2003 an agreement was met and hostilities were to be ceased for 45 days. Subsequent talks were allotted in Ethiopia and Nigeria under the mediation of the African Union (AU). In November 2004, the Government, SLM/A, and the JEM signed in Protocols which allowed for an improvement of the humanitarian problem and enhanced the security in the region .

The AU also has been playing a role in monitoring the ceasefire by establishing the Cease-Fire Commission in Darfur. But there has been some criticism that the AU has been slow to respond to the crisis . Also, unfortunately, the AU mission does not contain the mandate to protect civilians, but more than 5,000 troops from nations such Rwanda and Gabon are tasked in protecting the monitors stationed there. It is this lack of enforcement mechanisms plus the logistical and financial problems of AU that have led many analysts to believe the AU’s presence has been overall ineffectual . Brigadier General Ephraim Rurangwa, the AU’s deputy force commander states, “The troops that are here are not enough on the ground, they don’t have enough equipment and that’s why they’re not operating effectively –we have to try and protect civilians but we don’t have enough personnel for that.

To help ease the AU’s burden, an agreement was signed in November 2007 that allowed for a number of UN peacekeepers to help assist. This has been come to be know as a “hybrid force.” One of the key factors in the UN deciding to become more involved was a change of heart from China. China is a major buyer of Sudanese oil and did not want to hurt relations with Sudan who needs the money for arms and infrastructure . China changed its attitude with preventing a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Sudan itself was resistant of UN troops coming in, stating the force needed to be made up of Africans only. But with 17,000 troops stationed in the Congo this task would be difficult

On January 9, 2005, both the government of Sudan and various rebel groups signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Kenya. The signing of the agreement ended the 21 year old civil war between the North and South and allowed for a six year Interim Period. In the end of the period, the people of the South will hold a referendum to see if they are willing to secede. This brought hope to many, including Colin Powell from the U.S., this will help ease tensions in Darfur.

But one of the impediments to a peace process being brokered for Darfur is the number of different factions involved. Originally two major rebel groups were involved but those went on to split up. The Sudan Liberation Army (SLM/A) was led by ethnic Furs but split in November 2005 along tribal lines. The split was between Minni Arkou Minnawi (an ethnic Zaghawa who controlled the military arm) and Abdel Wahid Mohamed Ahmed el Nur (an ethnic Fur who controlled the political wing). The SLM/A-Minni faction was the only group to sign the 2006 Darfur peace agreement, out of which Minni gained a role as an advisor to the president (fears of a sell-out emerged). The SLM/A-Unity Faction has been blamed for much of the most recent violence, including an attack on an AU base in which 10 soldiers were killed .

The second group, the JEM, also broke into different splinter groups. JEM was founded by Darfuri Muslims and was led by Khalil Ibrahim Muhammad who wrote The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan. The most significant splinter group from JEM is the National Movement for Reform and Development (NMRD) which broke away in 2004. Tek, the leader of NMRD, is on the UN sanctions list for alleged war crimes.
One of the more pressing issues is whether the crisis in Darfur constitutes genocide. The latest numbers show that an estimated 200,000 people of died and two million people displaced in Darfur. The problem pits 30 ethnic groups, which fall into two major categories, African and Arab, against each other. People accuse the Arab based government of the North of mass murdering the African people of Darfur. Critics such as Makau Mutua say that “race - not religion – is the fundamental fault line.” But many other sources point out that both communities are Muslim, and years of intermarriages have made such racial distinctions impossible . According to the World Food Programme’s Greg Barrow, the crisis in Darfur is often portrayed as a simple conflict between Arabs and Africans but the reality on the ground is much more complex . It is this conclusion that led the UN, with much controversy, to report in 2005 that the situation in Darfur could not be a case of genocide. The UN Commission found “the Government of Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide;” going on to state “the crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing.”
On that same note as previously mentioned the UN states:

The various tribes that have been the object of attacks and killings do not appear to make up ethnic groups distinct from the ethnic group to which persons or militias that attack them belong. They speak the same language (Arabic) and embrace the same religion (Muslim). In, addition, also due to the high measure of intermarriage, they can hardly be distinguished in their outward physical appearance from the members of tribes that allegedly attacked them.
Even though the UN did not find acts of genocide, the organization still found many serious violations of international human rights amounting to crimes under international law .
The judgment in the 2005 UN report was far from what many people and governments believed. The US House of Representatives and Senate unanimously passed resolutions declaring the crisis in Darfur to be genocide. Former Secretary Powell has stated that “genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the Government of Sudan and Janjaweed bear responsibility – and that genocide may still be occurring.

Today, there still are ongoing talks about what must be done to save the region. But as the government of Sudan continues to stall and rebel groups continue to splinter, the citizens of Darfur will continue to bear the violence and pain of one of the worst conflicts in Africa to date.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Unrealised Moscow

Ever since its inception, the Soviet Union sought to show the superiority of communism through its military and space technology. But the Soviets wanted this dominance to be expressed symbolically which led Soviet architectures to plan some really amazing buildings to project this power. Unfortunately*, these idols to communism were never built due to time and budgeting constraints....continue on and you'll see why. (*I say "unfortunately" because one, these would be awesome to see even today; but two, constructing these buildings would of cost the Soviet Union so much money it would of probably sped up the fall communism.) Unrealised Moscow brings us a vision of what could have been...

Aeroflot Building
Designed in 1934 by D. Chechulin, the building was to be a monument of Soviet aviation. Although the building never came into fruition, some of the elements were used in other various government buildings.

Building of the People's Commissariat of Нeavy Industry
Also designed in 1934, architect I. Fomin tried to conserve the St. Petersburg neo-classical school of architecture in his design.

The Рalace of Technology
In 1933, architects Samoylov and Yefimovich competed with others to design a monument "to the achievements of Soviet industrial technology, agriculture, transport and communications." It was to be located on the banks of the Moskva River.

Building of the People's Defence Commissariat
In 1933, architect Rudnev wanted to design a building "conveying an impression of grim impregnability and crushing might to correspond to the official image of the Red Army" Although this building was never realized, Rudnev went on to build others such as the Moscow State University.

Now Самая грандиозная (the most grandiose)....

Palace of Soviets
This huge, controversial, building was to be the symbol of the "imminent triumph of communism." Design and construction was to be completed in stages, starting with he Kremlin demolishing the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 1931 (where it had been situated since 1883) to make way for the Palace. Entrees in the competition to design to Palace came from all over the world, including the US. Iofan, Schuko, and Gelfreikh became the leading architects drafting the basic features. Stalin quickly stepped in (of course) and demanded the tower to be taller and a giant statue of Lenin to placed on top (Engineers today say this was totally unfeasible, the 6000 ton statue would have probably led to the building sinking in to the river bank). Construction, over the years, came to an end due to limited budgeting and flooding from the river. The only relic of the building today is a giant slab of metal and concrete.

View more of these huge unrealized Soviet buildings at Unrealised Moscow.

Obama Kids: Sing for Change (Pyongyang Remix)

The folks over at Reason put together a video of a kids choir chanting for Obama while showing clips of a similar use of propaganda being used in North Korea. While I do find the clip funny, I couldn't help shake an uneasiness about the whole thing. I don't like the idea of using kids to promote an issue or candidate on any point of political spectrum. The Kids for Obama site unabashedly states the kids are being used as a propaganda tool:

Do you feel like you want to get involved in the political process but you don’t know how? Do you feel like there’s something important coming up in the Presidential elections? Get involved in KIDS FOR OBAMA! Studies have shown that kids can affect their parents and their siblings’ opinions and even change the opinions of older family members . . . including those of voting age. Are you still with me? Great, Let’s get started!
Do these kids understand what they are promoting, good or bad? Probably not, that is what is so reckless and sad about the whole thing.

The Economists are for Obama

Well, I have to admit that this poll from The Economist (analysis) came as a surprise to me! The Economist emailed a survey to 683 members of National Bureau of Economic Research asking which presidential candidate, Obama or McCain, has a better understand of economics and who has a better economic plan. Of 142 people who replied, 46% identified themselves as Democrats (pdf), 10% being Republican (pdf) and 44% as Neither (pdf). The findings show that economists, on all sides, overwhelmingly say Obama has a better understanding of the economy and a better plan. To take a closer look at the overall data, click here (pdf).

The Money Meltdown

There is a new blog, The Money Meltdown, that aggregates information from different media sources to explain how the U.S. and global money markets fell into crisis. Topics range from background info to what you should do about your money.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Autumn Leaves

My preferred season, autumn, has just begun! With the temperature just right and the overall feeling more relaxed, I thought I'd post a clip to introduce the new season. Who better to do that then the "Chairman of the Board"?

For those of you interested in why the leaves turn color, here is the short science behind it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Geography of Personality

The Wall Street Journal recently put out an article focusing on a study found in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science(pdf). The study, using 60,000 questionnaires, mapped the U.S. based on personality traits (extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness). Then the study overlays data about crime, poverty, and heath to see if there are any correlations. The findings are interesting. But as a psychologist in the article points out, this might only "reinforce stereotypes and tempt us to draw overly simplistic conclusions[,]" going on to say "we tend to reject information that doesn't agree with our stereotypes." Draw your own conclusions...