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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


School, work, family, friends, play. Like changing outfits based on the occasion, we change who we are based on who we’re around and what we’re experiencing. The shy scrawny kid in the back of the class will throw a devasting punch when pushed too far on the playground. The tired, stressed soccer mom will draw on unfathomable reserves of strength if her children in danger. The scarred combat veteran will break down sobbing if caught off guard by a sudden reminder of their dead brothers in arms.

Everyone has more to them than meets the eye. Everyone has a hidden past, hidden motivations, and hidden worries. Even around their best friends, families, or significant others, people are universally motivated to not let their guard down completely. How do you know when you’ve found the oyster in the clam?

It goes without saying that we gradually strip away the layers of masks we wear to protect ourselves as we remove ourselves from the pressures and expectations of the outside world and surround ourselves with those we trust. However, the last mask is the hardest of all to remove, for it is nothing more than a transparent veneer that subtly prevents us from revealing our true selves.

One cannot be completely honest unless they are honest to themselves. If a person hides their true nature from themselves, there is absolutely no way anyone can ever comprehend who they are—therefore , the last mask does not come over unless a person is alone.
Whether this is late at night when insomnia gnaws at a person’s brain and only their thoughts keep them company, or on a long run in the early morning where the rising sun and fresh air lull them into a sense of tranquility, people are only themselves when by themselves. It is then and only then that a person can look in a mirror and see not just their face, but what lies underneath.

Most people are forced to conform in some way. This in itself is another mask, another layer. We wear clothes that make us look the same way as everyone else, and we act in the ways our peers act. The college junior who doesn’t drink, go out late or party is seen as an oddity, but perhaps they are revealing more of their true selves than anyone around them. It is a testament to their sincerity that they are comfortable with NOT hiding behind social expectations.

Some people get caught in a vicious cycle where instead of being able to open up and connect to those around them, they are forced to retreat deeper and deeper until the wall of masks they hide behind is so thick that only the dimmest flicker of who they really are can poke through. Those whose past is full of regrets, and whose future is full of uncertainty are forced to live in the moment, which leaves them alone and frustrated. On one hand, they are tougher and better suited to handle the rigors of life, and on the other they are lost; stumbling from challenge to challenge, unable to let someone who cares get close enough to give them an anchor by which they can orient themselves.

Losing the ability to lay yourself bare is the final act of self-damnation. At that point, the layers of masks that others can freely change and reorganize at will become tight and unyielding—a cold fortress that shields their last fragments of humanity.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Even Children Can Mix Red and Blue Into Purple

As momentous as tonight's presidential election was, we all deserve a break. We have spent months supporting, donating, campaigning for our respective sides. We watched Sarah Palin get mocked on Saturday Night Live and we watched Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials and past connections get scrutinized. We drank to "Maverick" and "Joe the Plumber" as we openly referred to the president-elect as a "terrorist."

Tonight, we saw both candidates stress the importance of unity. We either felt optimistic about the future or declared our intent to move out of the country. While I applaud the landmark victory for our nation's first African American president, the record number of young voters who participated in the election and the overwhelming international support for America's next president, I am nevertheless ashamed at some of the reactions I saw as the results became more and more concrete. Some McCain supporters seemed to deflate before my eyes, while Obama supporters blatantly shouted their victory without knowing the political leanings of the recipient of their verbal onslaught.

A dear friend of mine pointed out that, in some respects, an election is similar to a sporting event--the winners will naturally be ecstatic, while the losers will resent any celebration. While this was to some extent an eye-opening observation for me, I cannot agree completely. An election is vastly more important that a football game, and the emotions involved run much higher.

In the midst of the celebrations and victory rallies it is easily forgotten that Mr. Obama will not take office till January. Some of us have "hoped for change," but a significant portion of us did not. While both McCain and Obama have pledged to work together, reconciling their supporters will take a great deal of work and careful maneuvering. An informal poll of Facebook status' and reactions from people on the street clearly show that many people are still rubbed raw by tonight's results.

Several of the upset victories in the electoral college leave me hopeful that with time, we can all stand united behind our new president. But hordes of fanboys parading the streets while the remnants of Mr. McCain's supporters recoil in fear and misguided anger is not the way to start.

As Mr. Obama said in his victory speech, "Americans have sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of red states and blue states (credit: MSNBC)." I hope this is true. At our cores, we all believe in a similar set of beliefs. We aren't red or blue. We are purple. We are American. The fifty stars and thirteen stripes of our flag are blind to the color of our respective states or the color of our president's skin.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Everything stops. Everything goes again.

What does it mean to empathize? To walk in someone's shoes?

Does it mean to share their grief? To have faced a similar situation?

To me, empathy means transcending typical boundaries such as race, friendship or personal beliefs to make one's hardship so completely your own that it is impossible to distinguish where one person's pain begins and another person's pain ends.

It means to unplug from your hectic and oh-so-important life to take a quiet moment for someone you may have not known personally, but whose life had a profound ripple affect on those around him, and those close to you.

Empathy is what holds a person's head high and shoulders back in the darkest hour. Empathy is compassion, compassion is love, and love is the steadfast bond that makes people greater than the sum of their chemical and biological parts.

The crack of a pistol shot made everything stop. The intangible power of human contact is what will make everything go again.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Necessity of War

When annual wildfires incinerate large swatches of the western states, firefighters and National Guardsmen mobilize to evacuate residents and stem the relentless march of the walls of fire. National news is made as multi-million dollar homes are torn apart and lives shattered. Nonetheless, it is overlooked that wildfires are a natural occurrence, whereas thousands of square feet of pool, plasma TV, three car garage and all the other trappings of "success" are an intrusion by man.

Wildfires clear old growth to make room for young trees and greenery. The nutrients of the old trees are returned to the soil, and the circle of life continues. Still, a fire that burns out of control harms all life, young and old. In such circumstances, firefighters will clear a firebreak, which hopefully will deprive the fire of its fuel and consequently its power.

Once a fire is put out, rebuilding efforts may begin. Houses are rebuilt, safety codes improved, evacuation procedures examined. In the end, a community has the potential to be better off than before. The value of sustainability and co-existence with the natural surroundings is hopefully instilled.
Fire, arguably nature's most destructive event, is nonetheless an inanimate and therefore unthinking entity. However, its actions and consequences mirror those of arguably the most destructive man-created event, war.

For obvious reasons, arguing the utility of war seems like an uphill battle. However, it is why wars are fought and how they are handled that is the problem, rather than war itself. For example, wars such as the American war for independence or WWII are historically perceived as "proper" wars. That is to say, they were wars to gain basic human freedoms or to protect the freedoms of those who were themselves defenseless.

On the other hand, many wars, especially wars fought as jihad, or for natural resources are clear examples of when war was a poor solution or even a cop-out to avoid dealing with a situation with peaceful/diplomatic means.

The current war in Iraq can be seen as one such example. Although some military and media reports insist that progress IS being made, the overwhelming international view of the war is a negative one. Random, unthinking acts by soldiers such as the Haditha killings do nothing to improve the Iraq war's public image.

Nonetheless, I see war as a necessary social construct, but like any social construct it can be misused. With proper intent, management and oversight, war can be beneficial to society as a whole, much the same way as a controlled bushfire will renew an ecosystem.

Japan's near total destruction and modern place in the G8 and as a respected, technologically advanced, sovereign nation is strong support that war can end is rapid improvement beyond pre-war economic, social, and political levels.

War can be a fresh start. A chance to go back to square one and to collectively try to make things better. While war does have a winning side and a losing side, the label of "defeated" is not a permanent one. Germany went from being despised in WWII to being a member of the EU, the G8, and having a female head of state (Angela Merkel) before the United States even had a woman win a party nomination.

Many civilian technologies we take for granted came from military research and applications. WWII brought an end to the Great Depression in the United States and ushered in an era of economic development. As a byproduct of the Cold War, humanity realized the centuries-long dream of leaving earth orbit.

Sadly, the way war is fought is changing. Modern wars are over resources or ideological differences. Ongoing conflicts such as the genocide in Darfur (and the international community's inability to provide a solution) show how low we as people can descend. This is not war in the classical sense. Events such as these are nothing more than a playground bully terrorizing smaller kids, albeit with guns and machetes. Genocides such as Darfur and Rwanda demonstrate the need for a true war: the international community has a duty to deploy a force to put the playground bully in detention and allow everyone else to live their lifes in peace and safety.

It would be nice to live in a war-free world. A world where all people can accept each other and each other's views. Not everyone or every group believes in this goal, however; it is sometimes necessary to "teach a lesson" through force. What we must do is ensure that we replace the ingrained mentality of "I am better than you and will either bend you to my view or exterminate your people" with "Live and let live." This is what the true nature of war should be.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sparks and Flames

Throughout human history, there have been specific events that have shifted the course of social evolution in an entirely different direction. These events have included occurences such as the Boubonic Plague, the Middle Ages, the Renessaince, the Industrial Revolution, both world wars, the introduction of atomic weaponry, and the ongoing struggle for rights of life that are universal and blind to race, religion or social, sexual, or political orientation.

However, we are now on the brink of an endgame, which may not be a specific event, but rather the converging of a seemingly infinite web of events. Although we as a people have avoided a full scale war or cataclysmic event , the endless small scale conflicts, environmental disasters, and the increasing rate of social entropy are beginning to take a toil on our minds, our resources, and our ability to bounce back from everything that we (either consciously or inadvertently) throw at ourselves.

Nonetheless, good-hearted yet overly idealistic people still try to stem humanity's march towards oblivion. They travel to distant and impoverished countries, build schools, irrigate fields and try to educate those who are "less fortunate". Although I commend the tears, sweat and in some cases blood that has been shed by those with more for the sake of those with less, these efforts cannot be more than a stop-gap measure.

Change has to come from within. While it is understandable that a down-trodden people, beaten down both by life and by those who have defined themselves as "masters" may not know how to assert their place in life, having change (improvement?) brought to them is not the answer. The only action a foreigner/outsider can take is to provide the spark to fuel the local awakening. I refrain from saying revolution, because that word has a . . . tainted history.

Semantics aside, those who need change must work for it. They can be shown an alternate existance, they can be inspired, given a shoulder to lean on or a helping hand--but they can not be given.

In order to cause lasting change, people must strive and fight for an idea. An idea does not die--it is difficult to attack, hard to erase from the memories of those who struggled for it, and most importantly, and idea will give strength beyond food, water, shelter, economic development, etc. People are mortal--those who fight for what they believe in may die, but if properly nurtured, an idea will live forever.

In every oppressed people lives a dormant explosive force, that if triggered, has the potential to unleash an unstoppable wave of change, the potential to spawn progress, and the potential to shatter the status quo. Once the latent fire hidden inside all abused and battered people burns steady, once oppressed people begin to think, act and dream for themselves, it is time for those who provided the spark to step back.

Further meddling by well-meaning but usually ham-fisted outsiders only serves to dilute the sense of "we did it."

A feeling of "they helped us" cannot survive for long before social decay once again takes hold. While we all might be destined to spend our last days fighting to the death over the basic necessities of life, I know that I personally would fight much harder for I or we than for a foreign ideal or outside perception of "right."

Sunday, February 10, 2008


It would appear that there are two trenches in the war over global warming. One side, armed with complaints about cost and profit, volleys with the "enemy", who defends with concerns for environment and sustainability. Usually, no progress is made. When a positive result does occur, it is usually small in nature. Most innovative technologies remain on the fringes. Whether the cause is politically motivated or just typical of a free market economy is an issue that needs to be examined immediately.

If the resistance to innovation is caused by typical business trends, the problem can be rectified by financial assistance or other means of support. While this would not be an easy obstacle to overcome, it pales in comparison to the problem of tackling lobbies and political favoritism. However, it is only a matter of time before the political see-saw swings in favor of environmental protection and sustainability.

The issue of climate change and environmental sustainability, when combined with a healthy economy is one that should appeal to all elected officials. It is clearly evident that a strong business sector is not mutually exclusive with a healthy environmental footprint. Although there will be some initial carnage, free market principles will assert themselves and companies that act quick enough will profit greatly, while companies that lag behind of consumer demand will be given the choice of adapting late, at great cost, or being eliminated completely.

Therefore, it is up to the consumers to demand products that do not harm the environment. This ideal can take shape in many ways. It may be as drastic as making your home carbon-neutral, or driving an electric car, or something more mundane such as buying LED or compact-fluorescent bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs. Either way, the message to producers is clear: We will not buy products that are wasteful of expendable resources or harmful to the environment. To receive our money, you must offer clean, environmentally-friendly products that still provide the traditional demands of performance, elegance, exclusiveness, etc while still meeting our previous standards of power, performance, and precise engineering.

The biggest potential blow to companies that drag their feet will come in the utilities and food industries. As the public becomes aware of the environmental costs of shipping food great distances to reach markets where that crop wouldn't naturally grow, the pressure to buy local will increase. At the same time, power generation will be forced to de-centralize: utility companies relying on large power plants will be unable to compete with smaller, more flexible energy networks that depend on on-site generation for part of their energy needs. As the price of solar panels continues to drop, it will become increasingly viable for homes and small business to rely mostly, if not completely, on their own power. While there are many companies fighting for a share of the solar market, Nanosolar is a personal favorite. Personal behavior, coupled with energy efficient appliances, housing materials, and light bulbs can also greatly decrease a home's reliance on the current power grid. Wind, geothermal and tidal power generation will also help de-centralize the energy infrastructure.

Since these new energy networks would presumably rely on "green" power for the majority of their electricity generation, they will also allow most food to be grown locally, either on smaller farms, or in hydroponic towers. An innovative take on hydroponics, proposed by a Columbia University professor, can be found here. Hydroponic towers will be able to meet the needs of city residents, and reduce strain on sewer and water systems. A total switch to hydroponic crops will be unlikely--areas with climates suitable for farming will still produce crops, but for a more localized market.

Advancements in recycling and waste management technologies will also change the way we use our waste. For example, plasma gasification can be used to reduce and eventually eliminate waste that goes to landfills. The first phase of a landfill-free infrastructure would be to have the facilities to match the daily, weekly and monthly waste management needs of a community or town. The second and final phase would be to exceed demand by a high enough margin, so that existing landfills can be reprocessed. A quick but informative overview of the plasma gasification process can be found here.

The sheer number of new technologies and innovations vying for a portion of the potential profit in the "green" industry can be overwhelming. The fact that so many companies and individuals are jumping into this sector helps reinforce the idea that the "green" movement is more than a passing fad--which is a good thing.

Preserving our planet is an issue that we as people can rally around. A rich investment banker has just as much to lose as a starving third-world farmer. Global warming intensified natural disasters will strike indiscriminately, and global wind patterns will spread pollution thousands of miles to distant parts of the planet. A shift towards a world-wide mindset will be necessary; divisive factors such as race, religion, and economic status serve no purpose--we all need water, we all breathe air, and none of us want to live in a waterworld with all our prized coastal cities submerged.

In the end, we arrive at an ultimatum: Consume at our current rate, pollute at our current rate, and continue to run our economies and power infrastructures with outdated technologies, or act now to lighten the load we force our planet to bear. It will not be an easy or a quick transition, but the need to go "green" on a world-wide scale is unquestionable.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Overclocking the Brain

There are 24 hours in a day. There have always been 24 hours in a day, and barring some major societal shift, there will always be 24 hours in a day. Put under constant pressure to accomplish more, the average person, regardless of whether they are a student, a wage-laborer or an executive with a well-known company, begins to feel the suffocating limits of time and productivity bearing down on them.

Of course, there are many ways to attempt to defy the natural limits of body and clock--an entire time-management industry has sprung up to satisfy the needs of millions of workers who are constantly pushed to do more, think more, produce more.

The entire problem can be summed up by the standard formula used in the time-management business:


Logically, more work=more productivity. however, there is a limit to a person's ability to multitask; ironically, the stress caused by having so much to do arguably decreases this ability more than any other factor.

However, research into the way the human mind controls its perception of time (Discover: Science, Technology, and the Future. April '06) shows promise in controlling productivity in a whole new way.

Under stress, the body's internal caps on the amount of sensory information absorbed begin to break down. For example, a simple test developed by David Eagleman, a U of T-Houston neuro-biologist, seems to validate this hypothesis. Two test subjects attempted to read numbers on an LCD screen. Then, they bungee jumped off a platform. On the way down, both were able to clearly read all the numbers. Evidently, the brain can be tricked into running in overdrive.

But what does this mean? Does thinking faster mean thinking better? The simple answer is that it depends. Some occupations or tasks do value speed over comprehension. On the other hand, those who deal with abstract mental tasks, such as graphic design, writing, etc, would not necessarily benefit from added mental processing speed.

Another problem with altering time perception is the drug-like experience. A Duke University neuroscientist, Warren Meck, is interested in "whether its possible to administer a drug that speeds up time without making the experience euphoric" (22). In my opinion, the polar shift between medically induced, euphoric productivity and "normal" life would cause numerous personality and mental disorders.

For years, scientists and engineers have modeled machines after humans. We want robots to stand upright, have hands, 3D vision, and brains that function identically to ours. Put another way, we are gods crafting beings in our own image. Now that principle has been turned on its head--the gods have seen the benefits of what they have created, and they are attempting to emulate that. A person is flesh and bone, not metal and plastic. We can't add RAM or a faster processor. We are born the way we are meant to be. Maybe one day, either through evolution or by deliberate, conscious medical interference with our own genetic codes, we will go beyond the limits of what our current bodies support. However, that day is not now.