Sunday, December 28, 2008

American Hypocrites

So, the United States government's official position on the Israeli attack on Gaza that killed over 220 people was to urge Hamas to restrain themselves. Although the apparent cause of the attack was the rocket fire from Gaza that lead to some initial property damage in Israel, Israel's response is clearly excessive, just as Russia's was when Georgian forces opened fire. Yet, the same US government at first urged Russia to show restraint. Clearly, something is skewed when the United States unilaterally supports Israel, regardless of their actions. Clearly, this type of devastation on Gaza was well planned by Israel. What must not be forgotten here is that although there was a cease-fire agreement, and Gaza violated it, Israeli's still control access and water rights through the Gaza strip. With so much economic pressure, the population is starving, while the Western media is barred from ever reporting the willful disregard for human rights. The ultimate issue here is the oppression that Gazan's feel by the heavy handed tactics of the Israeli government. A few tinker-toy rockets are no match for massive military firepower that is paid by American tax-dollars. It is no wonder that the Arab world sees the US as a unilateral bully. Hopefully, the rhetoric under Obamas administration will at least admonish Israel for such actions and appear more balanced. These polarizing world views cannot continue to function in a world that is seeking integration.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Impatient Democracy

One of the main drawbacks towards our system of Democratic governance and ideals is the speed with which crucial changes occur. Because Democracy is dependent on the will of the majority, moral and ethical development is restrained by the evolving sensibilities of the populace. Although these changes can often be slow and rumbling, we have to accept the system as it provides us with the same democratic principles that help protect our interests. We may not always be happy with the will of the majority, but that is the system in which we operate. To help usher in progressive thinking, we must emphasize education over retaliation and the overuse of the judicial system.

When we look at the last two centuries of history, we're shocked at the antiquated moral and ethical beliefs the majority of the population held. Slavery for example was widely accepted and quotes from the Bible were used to justify the need to treat certain people as non-human property. There were many moral progressives, ranging from Quakers to enlightened Northerners who continued arguing for emancipation, even with the majority of people supporting enslavement. As time wore on and our sensibilities evolved, the majority came to realize that slavery was unjust. It still took a civil war, and a hundred subsequent years before the laws were changed to allow for universal equality between the races. As we progressed towards greater racial tolerance, we rightfully pressured those who still maintained archaic beliefs. When the South African government mandated Apartheid, the West was vehemently opposed, and through decades of sanctions and diplomatic pressure, we succeeded in ushering democratic changes. Still, it took many years before the sentiment had changed for the majority of Americans to suspend their racial divisiveness and elect the first black president. Yet, moral victory for the majority cannot be overwhelmingly claimed unless the climate of fear, and racial intolerance becomes even further diluted. To this day, there are a large number of seemingly enlightened and progressive people who still believe in racial inferiority, often missing the underlying socioeconomic factors, among other things. They refuse do acknowledge the vast non-biological cultural differences among peoples of the worlds, and use their preconceived notions of superiority to render peoples of different races as inferior. Lately, with greater genetic tools at our disposal, we're able to probe into the various genetic differences among human beings, and ultimately uncover the inherent bias in our thoughts of race. As it turns out, genetically, there is no indicator of human race. In other words, by looking at one's DNA, there are no categories that are shared across the board by what we consider a race. Beyond just modern racial superiority, many still hold quiet reservations regarding potential presidential candidates. Would the outcome have been different if both of Barack Obama's parents were black? Would it have changed things if Barack Obama had attended a few Friday prayers at a mosque? These inherent fears are still open sores even among the majority who elected him.

Moving beyond racial intolerance, there are other civil rights issues that are similarly moving at an uncomfortable snail's pace. As the recent California gay marriage ban initiative indicated, there is still enough traditional marriage sentiment in California to override the progressive laws there were passed by the legislature. The anger, hatred, and injustise that the supporters of gay marriage felt in California boiled over to public demonstrations, lawsuits, and violent threats against those perceived as limiting the civil liberties of certain groups. The irony of course is that the majority of African-Americans chose to support the ban. With all this said, we have to come to terms with the system that we have. Regardless of the ethical and moral views that one takes on this issue, the fact is that the majority, no matter how small, chose to maintain traditional heterosexual marriage. One can argue the lack of moral decency, and ethical responsibilities, but because we rely on our system of government to maintain certain democratically held beliefs which protect us, we must also accept that it may cause discontent in other ways. Again, it must be emphasized that education is the only way to garner support for controversial progressive issues. Timing is key, and there will come a time and place (such as Conneticut at the moment), when society at large is ready to accept marriage regardless of sexual orientation.

The drawbacks to Democracy becomes most realized when the population's level of education drops. As voters become ignorant and less savvy about the world, their voices become harmful to the direction of national progress. Democracy works best when the majority are educated, and truly understand the issues at large. When George W. Bush was elected for a second term, the disbelief among the enlightened should have been unfounded. Many people, through fear, and a lack of global understanding, had let themselves become influenced by misinformation, outright lies, and, clever propaganda. Few could differentiate between Al-Qaida and Iraq, or Iraq and Iran, or the differences between these groups. Further, because the mass media, with its conflicting information had shaped the global opinions of so many spoon-fed people, the movement towards restrictions on inidividual liberties was extended. Congress, even under Democratic control was cowering in a corner, the president was stubborn as ever, and we watched as nations like China, and Brazil expnaded their research and development, surpassing us in many sectors. We allowed ourselves to become pariahs because of our lack of global understanding. We have led ourselves to become isolationists, and we are fed with filtered information without a moment's thought or reflection. If the government implies that we must protect Israel at all costs, well, then why think twice about it? If we're told that the Mulsim world hates America because of our freedom, then why question that? If the President states that we need to prostrate ourselves on the ground next to the soiled constitution and allow the government to trample us under foot, then it must be for our own good. Worst of all, when atheist "elitists" tell us to embrace rational thinking, strengthen the secular nature of our government, reduce religions role in politics, and ultimately accept that all human beings have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, well execute them. The rights of a dying patient to die with dignity to not matter because religion says so. The rights of a woman who knows she can't afford a child, and doesn't want to burdon society doesn't matter because religion says a clump of cells inside her is a person. These are the moral and ethical failings of a poor educational system. With that in mind, how much progress can we expect out of society when there is so much fear of rational thinking? No wonder we have such an impatient Democracy.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Cautiously Optimistic Step in the Right (actually left) Direction

A new day has dawned in the shared collective experience of us Americans. We have come a very long way since slavery and the subsequent institutionalized racism that existed up to the 1960's. It took decades of courageous and dedicated individuals to fight misconceptions and inhumane behavior by our government. The thought that certain individuals in our society were inherently inferior to others does unfortunately continue to even our proudest day in terms of civil rights. Yet, we shouldn't spend this time congratulating each other on a job well done, but should instead proceed to move our nation forward through reason, critical thinking, and especially progressive behavior. It must be understood that even the most conservative politician of today's standards would be a stark liberal in the 1930's. Our progressing sense of social justice and equality has yet to become universal, even within the boundaries of the United States, but the walls of injustice are continuing to erode and become relics of the past. The long road towards liberty and virtuous freedom is no where near over, and yet, we know for a fact that we're standing on the path that will take us on this monumental journey. We can no longer divide ourselves into races and other categories, but must work hard to educate the socioeconomically challenged. We must embrace the unknown and discard our archaic notions of religion providing us with morality and ethics. If we can learn to value a human's life as much as we value green paper, we will have succeeded in our collective mission. Until the arrival of that day, we'll have our proud moments, our successes and progressive steps, but we'll also know that there's a lot more to be done to achieve the goal of reducing human suffering, and expanding reason. President elect Barack Obama has given hope and optimism to a country that was reeling from oppression and near autocratic rule. The freedom and pride that many of us feel is still all but fleeting. When we awaken from our drunken celebration with a massive hangover that involves a near collapsed economy, anthropogenic climate change, seemingly endless wars for limited resources, and a policy of supporting tyrannical regimes while admonishing others of equal magnitude, we will have to maintain some degree of cautious optimism, but must work twice as hard to improve these global problems. Just pressing a few buttons or marking a few pieces of paper to prove that we voted requires the least amount of our effort. We must unite, not only nationally, but globally, and tackle impediments with clear insight and mature reasoning. The days of biased political agendas and unilateral support for perceived allies must be over. If we're going to hold Iran to certain nuclear standards, then we must do the same with Israel. If we're determined to develop alternative eneregies, then we must also entertain the thought of replacing our toxic coal burning reactors with the new generation of nuclear ones. We can't politicize issues that must be applied across the spectrum. It is time that we drop our political alliances and do what is best for our country as a whole. Working on accessible medical care for all, hybrid and alternative fueled vehicles, and especially engaging in research and development for scientific and technological progress. We must overturn the restrictions on Stem Cell research, government funded climate studies, and a whole host of other issues that have become politicized by the religious right. Although I am certain that many may not agree with my views on the reduced role of religion in the future of our society, the intimate entanglement of religion and national policy must end. We cannot continue to dictate national policy because some religious idiots believe that a few cells have more rights than the woman who's going to carry its development for nine months into a hopefully functioning member of society. Limiting one's civil rights because some religiously intolerant individuals read too much into their ancient, historically inaccurate, and misanthropic texts, should be a crime in a progressively minded society. Looking at the failure of the Republican party and the various excuses for it is groundless unless one realizes just how fiscally conservative individuals have remained silent as the religiously intolerant, and scientifically illiterate morons have dictated platform policies. If you were a single issue voter who was hoping McCain's tax break could provide more retained money in your pocket, did you not consider the implications on the global scale of his narrow minded views? His lack of diplomatic tact would not go well with the world, and our arrogant attitudes have only emboldened our enemies to act more brazenly. It's only through leading the world with example that we can hope to reach all corners of it. Yet, we have one party that has based its social agenda on the 19th century. Denying the truth of evolution, allowing the civil liberties of women, immigrants, gays, religious minorities, etc., all contribute to the loss of respect for the party that pretends to represent the individual. They care more for stagnation and not progression. Leave it to them to regress us back to a more comfortable existence like they must envision the Middle Ages to be. Now is the time to discard archaic religious notions, and maintain a dignified society. The paradox in this situation results from those impededing progress who must eventually face the future. As our society evolves and our sensibilities become more tolerant and enlightened, those who wish to maintain their racist hatred, extremist religious tendencies, and lack of education, will become extinct. Either we choose to move at a crawl and risk stagnating, or worse, regressing from more enlightened countries of the world, or we fully embrace the future. We can't fear the elite, and we must be equally willing to hold a flame to the feet of our current crop of elected individuals. They must uphold the standards to which we elected them, and regardless of the historical nature of these elections, their primary responsibility is the future, not the past. If anyone in the last 30 years is capable of moving us in the proper direction, it is President Elect Barack Obama. Let us hope that our support is well placed, and history will judge our actions as the turning point in America's global resurgance. We can once again lead the world in science, technology, medicine, economic policy, and the talent through which a well rounded and balanced education will provide.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On my way to the Undiscovered Country

In case that title went above anybody's head, I am not calling Armenia the Undiscovered Country, but I'm referring to something in the spirit of Star Trek. Jumping to the heart of this post, most of the previous articles on this blog were academically written, with a pedantic style that may have allowed the reader to finally win the battle for insomnia. There's a great deal of catharsis in writing one's own perceptions on the world at large, and so many fragmented and divergent thoughts become much more cohesive when placed in a written context. When I initially started this blog, I had promised myself that I would avoid becoming one of those people to post about their private life, allowing the world to become the nosy diary reader that many initially dismiss, but hope to have at their attention. Since then, I have not wavered in making this blog personal. However, I have decided to sharpen my skills as a writer by chronicling my journey, both physical and philosophical to the land of my forefathers. In actuality, it's just a fraction of the land of my forefathers, but after thousands of years of deep history, ranging from happiness to sorrow (usually tilting towards the tragic end of the spectrum), the simple fact remains that there still exists a sovereign nation called Armenia. How many Phrygians, Cappadocians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Goths, etc., can attest to maintaining cultural cohesion and a sovereign through the last few tumultuous millenia?

Upon returning from this all-to-brief trip, I will attempt to frequently update this blog with posts containing my impressions, perceptions, experiences, insights, and self-discoveries. I'll illustrate these with photos taken, and hope to better engage the reader. It must be understood that my attempts at changing the nature of this blog is not connected to the hope of gaining a larger readership, or pandering to popular opinion, but is a natural extention of the creative drive to expand and constantly improve. My hope is that as the main themes remain as they are, the exploration of new literary realms will enable a greater interest that borders outside the harsh world of politics and nature. My contempt at politicians and clergy will never wane, and I shall continue to fight for reality as it is. Yet, even reality isn't the harsh nihilistic plane that some would make it out to be. Within reality, there is an amazing development known as the human mind. We can conquer the secrets of nature, as will soon be further revealed with the LHC, and probe the depths of the universe. Our ability to reason and develop tools that can further refine our understanding of the natural world is unsurpassed by any creature that has ever existed on this planet. The fact is that we are truly lucky to have survived the cosmic death gallery long enough to develop the self awareness to explore everything around us. Science is ultimately the only door that we can use to highten our understanding of everything around us. It is not a belief like religion, but instead, the only method that will lead to true empirical understanding.

Having completely drifted off topic, I would like to return to explaining the inner need to blog about my upcoming experiences in Armenia. As it's often said, it's only by looking at the past that we can have a greater understanding of who we are, and where we're going. My primary goal on this trip is to first, understand both the country and the people from which I came. Of particular interest are the archaeological and historical sites that will help highlight the true history of the region. Secondly, I would like to gauge the attitude of the people, and developing economy of the present, and hopefully uncover the direction that the Undiscovered Country will take. Yet, the Undiscovered Country is a blind path, with only hindsight as a guide, which even on its best day is probably unavoidable. The natural oscillations and rhythm of life as our existence moves through spacetime is as circular in some ways as it's linear in others. Only science and the constant battle calls for defeating the ghosts of the past can prevent our sysyphusian struggle.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pawns in a Global Game of Chess

A major realization that has occurred as a result of this Russo-Georgian conflict/war is that regardless of which side one takes in support of one entity and condemnation of the other, one thing that becomes very clear is that a small nation stands virtually no chance of success without using larger allies as a crutch. We don't have to strain at the modern political landscape on our planet to understand just how empires and large states can use smaller sovereign nations to become pawns in the global game of chess. Throughout history, large empires such as the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, and those existing in recent years like the Axis Powers of the Third Reich, or even the Soviet Union, all use small vassal states as either buffers to retain regional control and isolation, or as expansionist entities meant to increase global control of resources and assets. During the expansion phase of the Roman Empire, Rome found itself at odds with another regional power in the Mediterranean, known as Carthage. The entity that retained control over the shipping routes and ports of the Mediterranean would become the most powerful empire in the world. After numerous conflicts, and three bitter wars, Rome gained control over all the former Carthaginian territory in the South and East Mediterranean. What was once a region of competing states became an entity that controlled the destiny of the whole Mediterranean. The eventual success of the Romans, however, at the start of the First Century, would not have been possible had the Romans not sought allies in the Mediterranean who were tired of the tax policies and limited protection of Carthage. Having retained these allies, Rome found it easier to control the region once Carthage was out of the picture. As the Roman Empire expanded to its greatest extent (around 115 CE), they found their expansion checked by the arguably equally powerful Persian Empire. The Persians were much more powerful than the Carthaginians, and Rome was forced to acknowledge that there was no way the Empire could extend any further East. In order to protect itself against the Persian menace, and insure that territorial integrity of the Eastern region, Rome signed a treaty with Persia to retain Armenia, and the Mesopotamian regions as buffer states. These countries were given Persian rulers, who happened to pay tribute to Rome. Yet, the situation was not ideal, and the extent that Rome and Persia tried to underhandedly exploit the Buffer States was frequent and increasingly more meddlesome. The states in question also recognized the power they possessed in having both Empires vying for control, even though officially speaking of truce. Armenia, as an example, constantly attempted to use its power to control its own destiny, often trying to instigate the Persians or Romans, depending on the entity they felt was more capable of defending its interests. Often times, different princes, in what amounted to feudal-like regions, would take opposite sides in support of a given empire. Sometimes, this strategy would work, and Armenia would be rewarded by a reduction in taxes, or even autonomy. Other times, this would result in a bitter war between the Empires with Armenia becoming a battlefield.

With just one example from global history in mind, we can now look at the current Russo-Georgian conflict with an enlightened perspective and a window into understanding the perpetuation of history due to the human condition. The current expansionist policies of Russia can be likened to the growing power of the Roman Empire. In Russia's case, its influence was far greater and extended to a larger area during the height of the Soviet Union. Under the guise of Communism/Socialism, the Soviets had extended their control from East Germany to China and most of South-East Asia. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's influence was considerably reduced on the world stage. Yet, the last 15 years have seen Russia making a resounding comeback, partly due to the price of oil providing rapid economic growth, and also to the strengthening partnership with Europe and Asia. As Russia's economic situation has improved, they have realized that as they were going through countless hardships and post-communist changes, NATO, with a significant United States control was slowly marching towards Russia's back door. Ultimately, the need for oil and regional control of the Middle East by the West eventually sent alarm bells in Moscow. Without exercising any control and influence, Russia would lose out on many lucrative resources and opportunities for future economic growth. This lead to closer ties with Iran, and an attempt at rekindling strategic partnerships with many of the former Soviet Republics. Yet, with the Western Democratic reform movements that swept through Ukraine and Georgia, Russia become painfully aware of the need for regional influence and a reanimation of their global inspirations.

As is frequently said, the death of the Soviet Union lead Russia into Hibernation, but the sleeping bear is awakening and hungry. Diving deeper in this analogy, having slept off the winter, the bear now sees his territory brimming with hungry bears, particularly one that seems intent on limiting his movement. He knows that even in his limited area, he has resources that the other bears covet. In Russia's case, Georgia is the geographic boundary that Russia must retain control to continue on its prosperous rout. Having allied itself with Iran and Armenia, Russia needs to maintain expansion in Georgia to retain regional control of the Caucuses and thus the bridge to extend into Iran. At the moment however, control of Georgia is in the hands of the West, and thanks in large part to the East-West Baku-Ceyhan pipeline (see previous post here), the West cannot lose influence in the region. Since Georgia is so critical to the interests of both Russia and the West, it has become a buffer state like Armenia used to be under the Roman and Persian Empires (also happens to be just north of it as well). The Russians, knowing they have little direct control in Georgia proper, decided to extend their helping hand to the small semi-autonomous states within Georgia that border Russia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, being the lesser pawns in the game, decided that siding with Russia would help maintain their independence (they should have talked to the Chechens) far more effectively than allowing Georgia to control their destiny. Moreover, both provinces feel as though they have economically more to gain when Russia exerts power and influence in the region. As for Armenia, it recognizes that siding with the Russians may be fraught with danger, but the chance for economic improvement and geopolical stability is a difficult proposition to discard. Knowing they have a hostile neighbor to their east (Azerbaijan) and a much stronger and, in their eyes, malevolent neighbor to the West (Turkey) they feel the necessity to maintain a strategic partnership with a near-by power whose strength is much greater then both their neighbors'. The partnership with Russia isn't just unilateral however. Russia in turn exploits Armenia knowing that they have an ally in the region completely dependent on them. This dependence on Russia provides Armenia with some feelings of importance. Yet, if history is any indication, the perceived power that small nations have is as illusory as unicorns and rainbow gold. As soon as the nature of the situation changes, or the economics shift, those small nations that hold so tightly to those in power will be readily discarded. As with Georgia's current crisis, the expectation that the West would come to Georgia's aid militarily must have been tempting but as it turns out, the West can only attempt to verbally intimidate Russia. Russia has fuel control over the West, and no amount of barking will amount to significant changes. The West, especially the United States in recent years, have continuously promised more then they could deliver to pawns all around the world. When the Kurds were promised greater freedom, and delivered on their insurrection against Saddam Hussein, the West, enjoying the oil riches, allowed the Kurds to suffer the consequences with little sympathy. Even now, the West exploits the Kurds, while concurrently manipulating Iraqi and Turkish politics to prevent the Kurds from gaining greater autonomy. We talk of the importance of territorial integrity, yet, find ourselves supporting Taiwan's calls for independence and allowing bases in countries that in some cases are completely hostile (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for example). Yet, this is how the work of empires is done. Through hypocrisy and the perpetuation of disingenuous ideals, the powerful forces of the world manipulate the game of world politics through sheer audacity and people's stupidity.

Considering the Chess analogy, many of the small nations in the world, already described as pawns, can be readily sacrificed as long as the game proceeds to it's conclusive end (checkmate occurs when on nation controls the resources of the whole world). There are some people who feel as though there is a world order that controls the nature of the game and seems almost omnipotent in its actions. Yet, that would be like assuming that the purpose of chess is to discard all the pieces and allow only the Queen and Rooks to remain in the game protecting one's King and attempting to attack the other's. The world is a lot more complex, and the outcome of the future as variable as the strategy and movement from one chess game to another. It should further be noted that the pawns are not always useless and can at times help protect the King and other times, hinder an escape. Similarly, many of the small nations of the world rely on their importance towards controlling regional affairs, and if the situation is favorable and remains constant, then they are rewarded, but if there's a negative turn in their position, they are the first to suffer the consequences of discord and strife. Those of us who come from areas of the world that are constantly changing hands, grow to become both cynical at the prospects, or idealistic towards a final change for the better. Yet, economics and the human condition will generally collude to prevent the lesser nations from attaining degrees of freedom and independence outside the protection of the much larger empires. Ultimately, the illusion we harbor at having freedom of choice, and control over our destinies is just that, a complete and total illusion. We are prey to the whims of both nature and human nature. But the one ray of hope from attaining this view is that although our destinies aren't under our direct control, we can investigate our position and be true to ourselves. We can allow our minds to probe our place in the fabric of society, and although disconcerting at times, how many creatures on this planet have that ability? How many people can truly say that conflict and warfare in the world have shown them that although we're at the mercy of forces greater than us, we can maintain degrees of freedom and expression in our thoughts and our daily actions? For all we know, an asteroid can collide with Earth and lead to our extinction. Would all the wars that we fight, and all the petty skirmishes over economic resources matter? Sadly, those who have the luxury to realize such things also happen to generally live in places of peace and stability.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Georgia-Russia Conflict Explained

Ultimately, this conflict comes down to territorial integrity and whether a sovereign nation has the right to uphold it when separatists within the internationally recognized boundaries declare de-facto independence.

In Georgia's case, the country that we know of as Georgia is actually a commonwealth of a number of republics. Recently, because of the geopolitical games to control the region, Georgia has been fighting an internal conflict between ethno-linguistic groups that want to remain allied with Russia, and others that prefer to ally with NATO and the West. During this conflict, both the United States and Russia have sent special forces to control the region. Georgia is vital to both Russian and NATO (read US) interests. At the moment, Georgia is being used as a corridor to transport oil from the Caspian Sea port of Baku in Azerbaijan, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for consumption in the West. Similarly, Georgia is vital to Russia's strategic interests with Iran. Armenia, sharing the southern border of Georgia is pro-Russian (although there's a heavy opposition that wishes to break those ties and move closer to NATO) and has a north-south fuel corridor with Iran. By gaining control over Georgia, Russia can link itself to Iran through rail, energy supply, and various other economic resources. Similarly, by limiting Russia's role, NATO and the West can maintain a strong East-West corridor, thereby checking Russia's regional influence. At its heart though, this region of the world has seen its fare share of conflict between superpowers. When the Roman and Persian empires fought to a stalemate, it was Armenia and Georgia that were frequently used as buffer states. When the Turks and Byzantine were at odds, it was again the same region that was critical for power and control.

The modern problem also stems from the borders of Georgia being drawn up by Stalinist policy. In essence, the Caucuses is a very culturally heterogenous region, with various ethno-linguistic groups vying for political independence. As many remember from the wars in Chechnya and to a lesser extent Daghestan in Russia, as well as these current conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, the region is highly volatile and prone to constant dissatisfaction. As an Armenian, I can attest to similar problems when the Armenian province of Nagorno-Karabagh in Azerbaijan tried to break away and assert their political independence. Ultimately, it lead to a still-ongoing conflict and although the region is under Armenian control, the political situation is highly charged. Any regional conflict like this in Georgia can easily escalate into a larger conflict with these other republics.

One thing that must be understood is that the media is going to maintain bias towards NATO and the West. The actual spark of this conflict was Georgia's surprise attack on South Ossetia's capital, thinking the world would be distracted, and the expectation of Russia's excessive response. The thinking in Georgia was that with Russia's severe aggression against its vital interests, the West would come down hard and it would cause a major diplomatic rift. The player in all this that goes unmentioned are the Americans who've sent special forces in Georgia. It would be cynical to assume that Georgia was coerced into a response thinking that they would capture South Ossetia (although internationally recognized as Georgian territory, many of its citizens hold Russian passports and are therefore like their brothers in North Ossetia, Russian citizens), but with the vital importance of regional control, this is sadly the typical international chess game, with the expense being paid by innocent civilians. It's also obvious that the provisional passports that Russia has granted to the Ossets occurred knowing that this conflict was oncoming and Russia needed an excuse to claim they were just defending their citizens. It must further be understood that in no means is Russia innocent of exploiting the situation but it's to provide a better framework for explaining the conflict in the region. It can also be argued that the Soviet policies of Russification are a major factor for so many ethno-linguistic groups allying with Russia, but as can be seen from the conflict in Chechnya, it wasn't exactly beneficial to Russia or completely effective. What Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia, have in common is that although they're provinces of Georgia, they see their future closely aligned with Russia instead of the West. Since they're semi-independent and have de-facto control over their regions, they feel that they shouldn't need to be subservient to Georgia's pro-Western president, Saakashvili, and the West. His Rose revolution, though quite important for regional control of the West, is actually looked upon as disastrous by the opposing provinces. When you have such a culturally heterogenous region that's also of great strategic importance, you're going to have all sides attempting to exploit the region for their economic benefit. It comes down to simple economics and geopolitical control.

Attempting to recreate the stage that this conflict is set is somewhat of a difficult task, but in doing so, the nature of the cycle of violence and geo-politics in this region becomes clear. From the map below, the semi-autonomous provinces of Georgia are indicated in red. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia border Russia, and more importantly prove strategic in Russia's influence within Georgia. Currently, both the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline (operated by British Petroleum and highlighted in Blue) and the Baku-Supsa Pipeline travel across a narrow central corridor of Georgia, before diverging. The Baku-Ceyhan then proceeds through Turkey, to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, while the Baku-Supsa terminates near a town Sochi, in another semi-autonomous province of Georgia known as Ajaria. Sochi is an important Black Sea port for the Caucases region, allowing the fuel to be transported on barges that are sent across the world. This is known as the East-West corridor and is already a well established fuel-transit system. Yet, there's also a natural gas pipeline just recently built that connects Iran to Armenia. As can also be seen, there's an additional natural gas pipeline that emanates from Russia, connecting to Georgia. If the two natural gas pipelines can be linked (the hard to see broken yellow line potentially passing through central Armenia), this becomes a valuable North-South corridor that benefits Russia, Iran, as well as Armenia. Even though Georgia could potentially benefit from this North-South Pipeline, simple economics dictate that the benefit they receive from the East-West routes, along with other economic stimulus funds from the West are too good to give up.

As this conflict escalates, and Russia forces its heavy hand towards manipulating the present situation to exert greater regional control over such a strategic area of the world, world criticism that the Russian response is disproportionate will increase. Yet, where was the same response when Israelis were bombing Palestine? Why were Bush and Company silent as Palestinians were running for their lives? Why did they allow the Sudanese government to ravage their own population through genocide while remaining relatively silent? These hypocritical world leaders now assume that because this conflict disrupts their attempts at regional hegemony in the Caucuses, the world will forget their silence under similar situations involving such morally ambiguous allies. They ultimately have no voice on the world stage, and their words will continue falling on deaf ears in Moscow because they showed their true colors in the silence under similar circumstances. Because of such geopolitical games of chess, peace is going to remain a commodity that is quite difficult to attain.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Credibility Trumps Credulity -- Part I (Introduction)

One of the most difficult concepts to comprehend and relate to other people is the importance of critical thinking, skepticism, and the accessibility of evidence in determining the plausibility of various theories. Often times, we come to feel as though we have attained a very cohesive and complex theory and choose to focus squarely on information that supports our preconceived notions. In other instances, we may be introduced to theories that may superficially seem deep and thought provoking, perhaps even superior to accepted notions, and yet, due to our need to seek reinforcement for our preconceived theories, we are lead astray from reality. We can construct an artificial reality that is strengthened by falsely reinforced information and loaded notions that we extract from our misguided observations and preemptive filtering of accessible information. In our current day and age of information accessibility, we are consistently bombarded with a gradient of relevant information ranging from sources that are at best dubious to those that are well researched and supported. Some of this information is present as a means to misguide and misdirect credulous individuals, while others inadvertently present false and highly misleading data. Whether the data is statistical, material, figurative, or evidential in nature, verifying it, and maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism often interferes with our inherent need to reinforce our preconceived notions, no matter how misinformed and misguided they may be. Ultimately, it is up to us to develop critical thinking skills, and strive to constantly apply a healthy degree of skepticism towards any information that we encounter. There are various tools at our disposal to break down the information into manageable packets, or quanta, and through our rigorous internal filters, we'll be better able to assess given data. These are skills that are rarely taught to us, especially in the United States, and it takes a great deal of work and meticulous usage to break the bonds of credulous thinking and eventually come to think critically of various pieces of information we encounter.

The most important tool that we use to properly assess a situation is the scientific method. As any primary school pupil should learn, the scientific method involves certain steps that help us uncover natural processes. In short, the process involves the identification of a problem, observing and collecting data, posing a hypothesis based on the data, performing an experiment on the data, analyzing the relevant information gained, and reassessing the hypothesis to see if it holds up to the data. Generally, the first step to the scientific method involves a question. For example, why are the oldest hominid bones found in East Africa? Once we have the question, we can start to research the problem and attempt to form a hypothesis. In the given example, we can start by looking at the paleobotanical record of East Africa during the last few million years. We can further use comparative anatomy to view the changes in hominid development during the last few millions years. Further research and data can include fossilized pollen, geological changes, climatic differences, etc. What we'll see is that the ecology of East Africa during the critical time of bipedal development changed from relatively wet, to dryer conditions. What was once forested areas, were developing into grasslands. We can hypothesis then, that perhaps the reason the oldest hominid bones were found in East Africa was because the climatic changes forced certain apes to adapt to grasslands, whilst others were forced to retreat deeper into the forests. Since performing an experiment in this case would be impossible given the time constraints we have to deal with (we don't have millions of years of time to research this), we can continue building evidence and collecting data to further allow us to determine whether the new data will help reinforce our hypothesis. At this point, we can look at various hypotheses and use the growing evidence to rule some of them out. The greatest aspect of the scientific method is that it allows a hypothesis to be discarded when the evidence counters it. Using the hominid example, we can look at the various hypotheses attempting to explain why apes in that region of Africa evolved bipedalism and certain characteristic traits. Could it have anything to do with adapting towards a life in and near inland lakes (Aquatic Ape Hypothesis)? We can then ask, if the climate changed in East Africa, it must have had an effect in other areas of Africa. Is there evidence for evolutionary changes in other species during this time period? Was there an increase in animals that inhabit grasslands? In any case, the growing body of research into this problem allows us to come closer to answering the initial question, and discarding hypotheses that fall apart on further reflection. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is one of those that proved to fall apart and the many holes in the hypothesis are mentioned in the following link. Often times with science, we don't have a quick and easy solution to any question, and in fact, answering one question often leads us to a path of asking many more in return. Yet, it's the curiosity and rigorous tools of the scientific method that allows us to chip away at our ignorance and attempt to understand the world around us.

Considering that no single person has the time or resources to investigate every single aspect of the natural world, we must come to realize that we are dependent on the work and theories of others to help build a case for any investigation into nature. In this instance, a second tool that helps us critically analyze a given situation is the credibility of the individual making a claim. Many of these individuals have spend their lives on a specific question and thus have the greatest knowledge in their relevant field. Yet, it's only those individuals that have used the rigors of the scientific method who truly stand out as experts. One can spend their whole life attempting to explain hurricanes and tornadoes as acts of god, or caused by invisible cherubs at specific regions of the troposphere, but without the background in meteorology, their explanations are often completely groundless. Similarly, many so called "experts" with little background in the sciences will analyze the Egyptian Pyramids and determine that there is no possible way that humans could have built them. Their assumptions stem from the lack of technological tools that the Egyptians possessed, or the lack of political organization, or any number of other possible factors. Yet, without having to look to the heavens, there are many clues as to how the pyramids were constructed within standard Egyptian society and culture. Just because it took us thousands of years to relearn the methods, and due to our lack of hindsight as far as the organizational skills that Egyptian Civilization possessed during the Old Kingdom, many were and still are quick to dismiss the fact that such a feat was possible without any extra-terrestrial or supernatural influence. It's mainly thanks to the tireless work of actual experts, such as Egyptologists, Engineers, Architects, Computer Scientists, and even comparative sociologists, who have all contributed to our advancing understanding of early Egyptian civilizations and the true extent of their capabilities.

A third tool we can use when critically analyzing a given piece of information is Evidence. We should strive to ask ourselves what kind of evidence exists that helps support the given information. Does the evidence come from credible sources? Is it reproducible? Can we see this evidence for ourselves if we search hard enough or attain enough knowledge in the given field to uncover it? Are there independent sources that we can corroborate the information with? Feelings and thoughts are not enough to be considered evidence. As in law, the burden of proof falls upon those presenting the evidence that refutes the body of information that we have. Sure, some pieces of evidence prove to completely turn a theory on its side, while others are methodological errors, such as Cold Fusion, that prove impossible to reproduce. When accepting a given kernel of information as fact, the line of reasoning and rational thinking is our own to demarcate. It comes down to our educated and highly critical filters that determine whether a given quanta of information is reliable, credible, and ultimately, backed by evidence that can ultimately be falsified. Following this line of thinking, the second segment of this post will focus on the conspiracy theories that even the most educated and well intentioned people may hold as truth.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ji,Jir, and Jin -- The Generic Gender Neutral Pronouns

Having been extremely frustrated at determining whether it's appropriate to use He or She, Him or Her, His or Her (known as the 3rd person singular pronoun), as opposed to they/them/their, one comes to realize that English, being the flexible language that it is, needs a third person singular generic gender neutral pronoun. Although pedantic, it's grammatically incorrect to use their, theirs, or they because those pronouns ultimately represent plurality. However, one can use He or Him in a generic sense, knowing that in this day and age of sex neutrality, it can be offensive to women knowing that any female reference is usurped. We do still use the generic man, when referring to human beings, but the use of it is also declining. With all these indications in place, it seems necessary to create a new word to function as the gender neutral pronoun. In the defense of grammatic purists, there have been attempts at creating such a word, but as is often the case, necessity doesn't always beget usage.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, it becomes necessary and vital for the English language to use the Gender Neutral Pronoun in the generic sense. I propose using Ji (pronounced Jee), Jir, and Jin with some provided examples to further illustrate their usage. The first sentence will use the grammatically incorrect form, the second, the grammatically correct but awkward form, and the final will correct those with the newly created usage.

When a visitor comes to your house, you should always offer them a refreshment.
When a visitor comes to your house, you should always offer him or her a refreshment.
When a visitor comes to your house, you should always offer jir a refreshment.

A student always knows if they are capable of exceeding a teacher's expectations.
A student always knows if he or she is capable of exceeding a teacher's expectations.
A student always knows if ji is capable of exceeding a teacher's expectations.

The antique dealer bought their purchase on Tuesday.
The antique dealer bought his or her purchase on Tuesday.
The antique dealer bought jin purchase on Tuesday.

Finally, even the reflexive pronoun of Himself or Herself could very easily be applied as Jirself to maintain gender neutrality.

When one thinks of themselves as hilarious, they are often unfunny.
When one thinks of himself or herself as hilarious, he or she is often unfunny.
When one thinks of jirself as hilarious, ji is often unfunny.

As this last example clearly illustrates, the most effective, and efficient method of expression would use the gender neutral pronoun. This way, many grammatical mistakes can be avoided, and the charges that the English language artificially maintains a sexist bend can start to slowly fade. In a simpler world, people would not be as sensitive to the whims of language, and many feminist philologists would just as likely continue using the masculine as a generic gender neutral pronoun. Yet, because of the complexities in our society, and our continuously evolving sense of morality, behavior, and the correlative speech patterns involved, we must make be willing to make necessary adjustments to the language. English is a living, breathing, constantly evolving language, and therefore, flexible enough to incorporate sensible linguistic parameters throughout its ever-changing course.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Napoleon's Causality Cascade -- comte de La Pérouse

As part of a serial exploration of causality cascades that have profoundly changed the world, this first exposition will focus on a man very few people have heard of, but who may have indirectly changed the course of European History. For some definition, as described in a previous post, a causality cascade is an event that in perspective has snowballed into a force that effects the outcome of numerous subsequent events, and ultimately the course of history throughout the world. To fully embrace the concept, we must first have an elementary understanding of chaos theory. In essence, it's a mathematical theory that describes the behavior of complex systems in relation to the passage of time. For example, in a well known phenomenon called the butterfly effect, even the minimal perturbations of a butterfly's wings may effect the weather around the world. Similarly, a causality cascade can be thought of as a segment of chaos theory, but involving human related perturbations. Often these can be thought of as "what if" scenarios. For example, what if one of the early plots to assassinate Adolph Hitler was successful? How different would the world be today? Or in a related note, what if Hitler had been accepted to art school? Would he still have grown disillusioned? If we look at less influential individuals in the course of human history, we're less certain of their impact, whether directly or indirectly. For example, staying with our WWII example, what if we focus on the life of a Soviet soldier who escaped a sniper and survived? What if this lucky soldier had instead died? Now, assuming that this is a person who was not pivotal in any direct way to the course of human history, would the world be any different? In this instance, it's impossible to tell because perhaps his children or grandchildren somehow contributed to the world as we know it. Yet, it's also likely that perhaps there would be almost no perceptible difference in world history.

Our current Causality Cascade will focus on Napoleon and a little known explorer named Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. La Perouse was a French naval officer and explorer who idolized Capt. James Cooke, and also sailed in his footsteps around the Pacific. The passage between Japan and the Russian island of Sakhalin is named in his honor. In addition, he explored Alaska, California, and many Pacific Islands. In Samoa, he barely escaped injury, but a few of his crew were killed when they encountered hostile Samoans. His crew had a significant proportion of scientists, and he was highly successful in his mapping surveys. Sadly, after sending most of his writings and charts to England with some of his crew, he disappeared never to be heard from again.

The fascinating aspect of this story is that Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the sailors who applied for La Perouse's expedition to circumnavigate the world and help complete and complement the expeditions of Captain Cooke. At the time, Napoleon was a 16 year old second lieutenant from Paris' military academy seeking to serve in the navy, instead of the army, because of his prodigious knowledge of artillery and mathematics. These skills lent well towards a naval career, and had Napoleon made the short list on Le Perouse's circumglobal expedition, European history would probably have been much different. Would Napoleon have been one of those sailors killed by Samoans? Would he have disappeared along with the rest of La Perouse's crew? Would he have been one of the sailors sent to England with the charts and notes of La Perouse's? Had these events taken place, would the metric system be as wide spread around the world as it is today? Would the rise of nationalism take place at the rate it did? Without such a nationalistic uprising, would both World Wars have been delayed or even prevented? This is a true causality cascade. With Napoleons entry into La Perouse's expedition denied, his course in life was surely changed, and subsequently, the course of human history most definitively so.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sexism not a major factor in Clinton's loss

As the Democratic Presidential Nomination draws to a close, Barack Obama emerges as the bruised and battered nominee who must now face McCain and the Conservative establishment. The tough drawn-out battle between Hillary Clinton and Obama highlighted many factors that play significant roles in people's perception of political candidates and their willingness to generate enthusiasm and a genuine social movement. As the Democratic Party finds itself deeply divided, pundits, analysts, and apologists are tearing themselves apart trying to identify the reasons for Clinton's loss and Obama's success. Often, gender plays a pivotal role in people's perception as to what lead to Clinton's loss. Few are naive enough to believe that gender was an absent issue, but the leading perception is that it was a large determining factor for people's embrace of Obama. Apparently, because Clinton showed leadership and political savvy equal to any male running as a candidate, people viewed her in a negative light thanks to our gender biases. This idea, although perhaps partly true was not the cause of Clinton's ultimate downfall. Her failure was directly related to her disingenuous, manipulative, and politics-as-usual behavior. She pretended to represent the middle class by drinking beer, taking shots of hard liquor, claiming she was a gun-rights supporter, and other such antics. Sure, the "white collar worker" represents a large segment of the Democratic base, but similarly, others were easily able to see through her false image. It can also be argued that many women supported her cause, not for her ideological views, but for her gender. Many in fact admit to feeling sympathy for her as a victim of marital discord, and therefore engender a false sense of support. Conversely, although many African Americans support Obama, their support of him comes not only for his race, but for his message and issues. Initially, when the race for the Democratic Presidential Nominations was just beginning, many pundits actually assumed the African American vote would go to Clinton because of Bill Clinton's legacy. Yet, as the contest progressed, people came to realize just how manipulative Clinton was in achieving her goals. Her demeanor and perception went beyond a politician seeking Presidency, to an individual capable of doing or saying anything to justify their goals. Her gender therefore was not a major reason for her loss (after all, she had the support of women, Jews, and working class Caucasians).

It must be stated however that Obama does not automatically receive a passing grade because he was less manipulative and politically motivated then Clinton. He is still a politician, an individual willing to compromise his core values to achieve some sort of coalition. No politician is beyond compromising certain views to gather large political support. Our electoral and political system, as it stands, still leaves much to be desired. We are not a democracy until a better form of representation is allowed. Further, with only two political parties, all we receive are sterilized issues that choose to divide instead of unify. Ultimately, the poor will remain poor, the rich will continue to accumulate wealth, and the status quo will remain. A society is defined by its weakest link, and we should be ashamed that so many Americans are poor and uneducated. A fear of the elite is just a small part of the disease of ignorance that has crept up in our system. When Clinton tossed around the word "elite" as though it were a negative thing, her true nature became clear for many. She knew that she was courting the uneducated vote of a a segment of the American population that has yet to embrace the values of the 21st century. Much of their support for Clinton came with the undercurrent of racism and Clinton knowingly used this for her advantage. Thinking of states such as West Virginia, with the core representing the supposed "working class white" votes, their racial biases were not subtle when interviewed about their support for Clinton. Many not only showed racial biases, but as an uniformed populace, bought into the belief that Obama was a practicing Muslim, and therefore a threat to America. It's not as though Clinton's campaign went out of their way to dissuade such intolerant beliefs. For a person willing to do anything and everything necessary to gain a foothold in the highest position of power smells of desperation and selfishness. Yet, her role still remains crucial in helping mend the fallout from these battles. She can fight hard to repair the damage to her reputation, or allow the party to fall apart and thus help usher in four more years of idiocy.

Arbitrary Day

Considering the fact that not every topic on this blog will be long and pedantic, I'd like to delve into something slightly less serious than the usual fare.

Arbitrary Day should be an international holiday that celebrates absolutely nothing. Just an arbitrary day off from the normal grind of the work week. It doesn't much matter what country one lives in, there are bound to be months in need of a day off. In the US, we have June, August, and since Columbus Day was rightfully recanted, October, without a proper holiday. Perhaps a special web site should be created that allows people to vote for the month and day they would prefer to have as a holiday. This special vote can be cast a year or so before the year of the vote. The day with the greatest amount of votes (a true Democracy) would then become Arbitrary Day. People can choose to celebrate Arbitrary Day in any fashion they desire, whether it's a day off to catch some sun, catch up on a book, establish a family tradition, worship whatever imaginary deity one wishes, etc. I realize this may be a bit of a stretch, but the fact that few will complain with an extra holiday may eventually prove a success.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Quadrennial Milestone and Beyond....

It has now been a day over four years since I initially started this blog. I never had a cohesive strategy as to what direction the articles would flow, or the topics that would be covered. Along the way, just as is the case with any writer, I've been influenced and inspired by vastly different sources. Whether there were books I was reading, movies I was watching, conversations with people both supportive and detractive, or even moments that came out of sheer boredom, there have been countless extrinsic influences that have helped shaped these posts. Some, naturally, are a bit polemic and combative in tone (in the case with religion, spirituality, antiscience, etc.), others are more introspective, while the rest run the gamut from philosophical perspective to scientific understanding, and even the realm of language and grammar. Generally though, the common thread among these blogs is the importance of evidence, critical thinking, testing, reasoning, and ultimately using the scientific method towards achieving a cohesive picture of our place in the universe. Generally, it is possible to develop a comprehensive and fulfilling philosophy that is grounded in reality, and not within some imaginary realm.

From the general tone and direction of the last few months, it has become obvious to regular readers that there's more anger, frustration, fire, and some even call arrogance towards obtuse beliefs and ideas. It must be understood that coercing and indoctrinating an individual who remains ignorant of critical thinking is not difficult, but those who have developed the knowledge and understanding that only empirical processes can reveal are well suited towards navigating these complex lives we lead full of misleading and conflicting information. These topics are not meant to proselitize or convince others of their mistaken notions overnight. First, it is more of a personal catharsis towards developing a wholesome and realistic perspective in life. However, as is often the case when I debate my views, I'm labeled as a fundamentalist, no different then religious zealots out to convince others of their superiority. In fact, there's a law that relates to this illogic called "Blake's Law". It states that the longer a conversation between a believer and atheist lasts, it's almost 100% certain that the believer will call the atheist a fundamentalist. Fortunately, a response to this logical fallacy has already been alluded to by P.Z. Myers (an evolutionary/developmental biologist with one of the most popular science blogs online). His response is:
"The "new atheism" (I don't like that phrase, either) is about taking a core set of principles that have proven themselves powerful and useful in the scientific world — you've probably noticed that many of these uppity atheists are coming out of a scientific background — and insisting that they also apply to everything else people do. These principles are a reliance on natural causes and demanding explanations in terms of the real world, with a documentary chain of evidence, that anyone can examine. The virtues are critical thinking, flexibility, openness, verification, and evidence. The sins are dogma, faith, tradition, revelation, superstition, and the supernatural. There is no holy writ, and a central idea is that everything must be open to rational, evidence-based criticism — it's the opposite of fundamentalism."
Some people are happy living a fantasy and lying to themselves about the nature of the world, but others are curious creatures, investigative in nature, and generally enthused about the universe, reserving imagery and fantasy to realms that are fun in small doses or for amusement, but in normal daily practice, are useless. Every infant is an explorer, intrigued about the surroundings, and investigative in their nature. Once we reach a critical age, perhaps through our educational system, or rigid religious dogma, most of us lose our sense of wonder and fulfillment. We stop asking questions, and settle with substandard answers because we fear the truth.

However, atheists as a whole, although sharing the common bond of living in reality and functioning with a great deal of skepticism when faced with non-testable predictions, are often divided among many other topics. The philosophical views for example among atheists are ubiquitous, with some agnostic about the proper philosophy, while others seek to find philosophical satisfaction from obscure sources. One major disagreement I have with some atheists is the fact that they feel the word "atheist" carries too much negative connotative baggage, and therefor must be discarded for something more pleasant and friendly to the ear. The eminent biologist Richard Dawkins, among a few intellectuals have been pushing for the "brights movement". In this case, they want to relabel atheists as brights, and in doing so, hope that more come to embrace it. In my opinion, this relabeling seems too patronizing and condescending towards those who are ready to release their dogmatic faith-based beliefs. Another disagreement is on how to introduce these concepts to children. Their natural curiosity and imagination should not be limited, but at the same time, they must understand at an early age to be skeptical of certain beliefs may try to reinforce. In this instance, I believe raising children to embrace agnosticism is far more beneficial. A time may come when their perspective develops to the point where they choose to become atheist, but until that moment, they must be able to process the universe skeptically, but less rigidly. Christmas presents, and Easter egg scavager hunts should not be denied to children (after all, childhood has to remain fun and exciting), but they should be told that no matter how convincingly an adult tells them they know the truth, they must always maintain some skepticism. If a child asks if God is real, then a good response from this open perspective would be "to some people, they think God is real, while others, they aren't so sure, but nobody really knows the absolute truth. Anything you believe is equal to anyone else, but remember that the best way to investigate the world around you is through science." Ask any atheist, and their reply to children regarding this God question will be different. Here again, being an atheist doesn't necessarily mean we're all in agreement about everything. Unlike rigid political parties, we're happy to debate our differences, and perspective within a framework of reason, critical thinking, and the exchange of different opinions grounded within reality.

Ultimately, the future direction of this blog is up to the whims of reason, critical thinking, and the countless sources of information that help us maintain a grounded world view. True inspiration does not come from imaginary beings that mean something to someone and remain completely unknown to others, but to our inherent inquisitive human nature. It is our physical and cultural evolution that leads us to reach for goals and objectives far beyond our limited scope. It's the embrace of these ideals that will define our future.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Popularity Contrasts

Upon browsing through the Yahoo Top News Stories section, I happened to notice five very interesting articles under the Most Popular heading.

1) Pilots run out of fuel, pray, land near Jesus sign
2) Lost parrot tells veterinarian his address
3) Daughter of Christian music star killed by car
4) Federal court rules against military gays policy
5) Scientists discover "frogamander" fossil

As one glances through these topics, it's hard not to notice the vastly different stories that these articles contain. The first one involves light aircraft pilots who made an emergency landing and upon preying to God, happened to crash land safely next to a sign praising Jesus. Now it's understandable that during the stress of the event, and the likelihood that their perceived survival was slim, such a coincidence would seem like proof positive that the heavens somehow intervened to save these pilots. One question however is why do so many people praying for similar things end up dead, while these two survived? Some may say that perhaps they had a mission in life that wasn't accomplished, or that God operates mysteriously. Well, as is obvious from previous posts, that's a load of nonsense and justifiably used to convince oneself of their indoctrinated beliefs. The survival of these two pilots was a lucky accident, and they should feel like they won a royal flush in poker, but to assume that God made that possible is laughable at best.

The second story relates to a lost African Grey parrot in Japan that happened to know its own name and address, to the minute detail of the apartment number. What amazes me about the story is the temperment of the parrot. Initially, as it was brought in to a police station, it was silent, but after a few days of reduced stress, and a nurturing environment that had comforts such as food and water, the parrot was able to feel comfortable enough to speak. The fact that they display such differing characteristics and temperments between each other highlights their intelligence. One question that often comes up is the evolutionary advantage of such great mimicry. Why are African Grey parrots so much better at mimicking various sounds, as opposed to other parrots? What is special in their environment that allows the such an evolutionary adaptation? Finally, do their thought processes and vocal mimicries result from their gregarious social nature or sexual selection adaptability?

The third article is unfortunately the most tragic of all. Apparently the 5 year old daughter of a Christian music star was killed when she was accidentally run over by a car driven by her teenage brother. Naturally, the death, and subsequent trauma that this poor child must carry will be a burden upon this unfortunate family. Yet, where was their God to save the poor girl? Was he silent? Was he blind? I don't mean to lessen the tragedy or severity of this event, but was this girl's life any less sacred then the lives of the light aircraft pilots?

The fourth story represents a fragment of the constant battle that minority groups have fought throughout our history. As culture and society progress, groups that were previously mistreated have slowly become accepted and eventually ingrained in society. At one point in time, Native Americans, African-Americans, non land-owners, women, and recently homosexuals have been given negligible, if perhaps limited freedoms in American society. The story mimics the constant battles that each of these groups has had to face for acceptance. At the moment, non-believers such as atheists, agnostics, and others who have replaced irrational faith with evidence based reasoning have become targets for discrimination. Ultimately, as has always been the case, progress will prevail, and after a long drawn out battle of acceptance, groups that are discriminated will eventually become absorbed into the complex social fabric that will become the future. Yet, we are constantly reminded of liberty, equality, and justice for all, while those concepts are applied to a limited number of individuals and seem to always come with a limiting caveat.

Finally, on a more scientific-related article, recent fossil evidence has emerged that links the amphibian family lines of frogs and salamanders together. Evolutionary Biologists have long known that there was a common ancestor, or transitional species that at one point branched to form the respective amphibian families. The evidence is indicated through comparative anatomy, molecular clocks, and other such independent evidence. Finding the missing fossil that links the frog and salamander family together is vitally important in understanding how fossils evolve over time, and more specifically, how the amphibian family branched. It is amazing and literally ground-breaking discoveries like this that leads to our expanded knowledge and understanding of the world around us. No religion, no matter how well intentioned can ever answer questions as properly and beautifully as the scientific method can. The fact that a 290 million year old creature happened to die in favorable circumstances for fossilization, and that nearly a third of a billion years later, a creature with immense reasoning abilities managed to uncover it and trace its origins and subsequent species diversity is humbling and absolutely incredible. Here we are, as a highly intelligent and adaptable primate uncovering fossils of animals that highlights the origins and immense diversity of life on this little blue globe, placing more importance and emphasis to imaginary entities, instead of the awe inspiring physical world around us.

What links these five stories together, besides their popularity is that they involve our deepest seats of emotion. As one story attempts to solidify our faith, another highlights the tragedy of life, a third uncovers the battle for cultural awareness and progress , and finally two that highlight the wonderment of nature (fossils that unravel so many mysteries and animals that mimic our valuable traits). From highs to lows, from understanding to ignorance, these are the contrasting variables that describe our complex human behavior.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Perceived Arrogance

A common criticism often directed at my posts involves my supposed arrogance in elevating science and the scientific method above that of religion and spirituality. Many find it offensive for me to disrespect the personal and deeply held beliefs that they cherish so greatly. They feel that by choosing evidence, in contrast to personal belief, to formulate a philosophical perspective, I am limiting the possibilities around us. Apparently, just because there is no conclusive evidence to support various supernatural phenomenon, the fact that a distant possibility exists for their belief, I should choose to keep an open mind and accept any illogical and unsubstantiated view only because it happens to be unproven. This kind of limited thought is specifically the reason why I address these issues so often, and frequently fight with vigor for the allowance of reason and empirical evidence to dominate our thinking. It is possible for one to develop a well-rounded philosophy without having to divest their reasoning abilities into topics that have no factual basis in our world. Furthermore, as morality and ethics are not constrained and bound by religion, we should all have the freedom to recognize the importance that these beneficial human traits have outside of the dogmatic religious beliefs that have been indoctrinated into our minds. Once we recognize the importance of evidence, empirical thinking, and a strong foundation of data, we can be extremely successful in matters that are critical to our specie's and planet's survival. The future of our world is not connected in any way to the religious or spiritual beliefs of various people, but to the tireless work that we're willing to do improving both the environment and living conditions on this only planet that we've ever called home. No religion, no matter how tolerant, or coercive, has ever been able to usher in an age of progress and wisdom. In fact, progress was done in spite of the archaic and conservative notions that many religions display. As science has expanded our knowledge of the universe, the physical reality that religion allowed humanity to accept has become irrelevant. We now understand many of the mechanisms that are inherent in the processes that govern the laws of the universe, and subsequently our origins and behavior. We don't need religion anymore to give us physical models of the universe. Furthermore, as was mentioned before, we don't need religion to lead moral and ethical lives. The moral current that has evolved through our culture has done so, in spite of religion. We can pick and choose certain passages from various religious texts that appear relevant to the moral behavior of each generation, but cannot take the whole religious text as a moral code. In the Old Testament Bible for example, adultery was punishable by stoning the adulterer to death, and further, slavery, especially the indenture servitude of one's daughters was openly allowed and practiced. Few in this day and age would be willing to maintain many of the practices that were written and glorified in archaic times. So if morality, and physical descriptions are completely unnecessary products of religion in modern times, what other aspects might it provide humans? Well, as was covered in previous posts, comfort and ignorance may allow some people to maintain a rigid mentality when trying to break free of their indoctrinated bonds. Yet, should we be willing to maintain that some people need comfort and ignorance to survive properly in the world? Perhaps a select group of people really do need to lie to themselves, and allow themselves to be fooled into imaginary ideas involving voyeuristic beings claiming to be benevolent when in fact, their jealousy, guarded behavior, and limited rules of engagement constantly indicate their absurd nature.

As is typical, people will look at the harsh tone I have set towards religious views and maintain that I am still foolish and arrogant. They'll claim that not all religions are "bad" and that they do have their uses. Some apologists who are not religious themselves will further insist that these religious beliefs (or even the spiritual nonsense dominating the scene these days in the form of new-age ideas) are important for maintaining cultural continuity and a sense of self worth. Obviously, there may be some importance towards religious belief, but with the knowledge that we have accumulated in the last few centuries, few can deny the power of science over those religious myths.

As far as arrogance goes, I suppose that this stigma will remain with these posts as long as the tone remains as such. Yet, it's important to realize that every progressive thought is often met with arrogance when the masses have yet to embrace concepts that will eventually become widespread. There was a time in our not too distant past when many people believed slavery to be morally justifiable. A few however, dared to maintain that perhaps these African descendants were human beings after all. They did happen to bleed the same color, and although their external and cultural differences were obvious, they also laughed, cried, fought, worked, played and even died like any other human being. The brave individuals that first came forward to maintain this injustice were often harassed, attacked, and even killed for their beliefs. They were often looked upon as arrogant people of "enlightenment" who had read too many books and did not function in the "real world". Even closer to our current time, women were barred from voting because it was felt that they could not make a logical decision (often justified through Biblical passages -- the morality of their time). They viewed women as nothing more then child bearing and rearing cheap labor. It took generations of people, and countless individuals willing to stand up to their beliefs that women's votes also counted, before suffrage was declared universal. Looking at society now, many archaic beliefs will one day seem just as strange and unbelievable. Some of us, through determination, and perhaps a small masochistic streak, maintain our views in the face of so much opposition because we know them to be morally and ethically true. To summarize these views (which some deep ultra liberal, but will one day become the norm -- just as the most conservative view today is absolutely liberal and leftist compared to those 100 years ago), one must understand that there was no special creation involved in our evolution and present appearance on this planet. We ARE a cosmic accident, and although many have a difficult time accepting that, as religion's flame fades away, more and more minds will begin to understand the implications. If we are truly descended from Apes, and share a common biological bond with all the creatures of the Earth (as well as chemical and physical bond with the rest of the universe), then that means no human being is biologically more important than another. In essence, all human beings are an accident of the universe, and an accident of an evolutionary process that blindly moves in any arbitrary direction dictated by the selective pressures in the environment. No wonder this idea is so revolutionary and unsettling to many people. Their special status is suddenly questioned, and we become no different than any other entity in existence. Thinking along these lines often results in the mistaken impression that these views are extremist and no different than the fundamentalism of certain religions sects. However, these views are based on evidence, and if perpetuating the notion that evidence trumps everything else in explaining and understanding our universe, then perhaps an evidence extremist is not such a bad notion. Eventually, the tide will turn, and most people will come to realize the implications of our accidental nature. True arrogance results in our belief that we are superior to other entities such as ethnic groups, and even biological creatures. Our reasoning abilities however do give us a unique perspective on this planet. We have it within us to change this world, either for the better, or for the worse. Either we use our reasoning abilities to answer the mysteries of our universe, or we waste it on imaginary and supernatural phenomenon that exist only in the inventive minds of fearful, credulous individuals.

Einstein's Religion?

There's been a great deal of recent debate and controversy regarding Albert Einstein's views on religion and his personal beliefs on the subject. As a complex human being garnering such a great deal of interest from both academics and lay people alike, Einstein's beliefs are subject to wide speculation and an intrinsic need among many to fully understand his personal views. When one thinks of the quintessential scientist, their mental picture is often that of Einstein, his pipe, absent eyes, puffy white hair, and wrinkly forehead crinkled deep in thought. Therefore, those who support religion and spirituality often look at anything Einstein may have said that might tolerate their views, while others, opposing any form of religion and spirituality often look for evidence that Einstein was an atheist. Both camps feel that any shred of evidence that Einstein may have written, said, or somehow implied defending either view is valuable and groundbreaking. Lately, a lot of Einstein memorabilia has appeared on the market, and people's interest in him has never wavered. Of late, a letter was found in which Einstein fully dismisses religion as childish, and in particular, refers to the religion of his upbringing (Judaism) as nothing out of the ordinary when compared to other such childish religions. This naturally gives fuel and fodder to the atheist supporters of Einstein, and credibility to their arguments that he often invoked God as a metaphor, not an absolute.

Having described this phenomenon of treating Einstein as a valuable resource towards confirmation or denial of various claims, we must try to keep some perspective on these notions. Einstein was neither omnipotent, nor central towards universal insight. He was a human being gifted with abilities in physics, mathematics, simplification of complex laws, and of course, approachability. As all humans however, he was flawed in many ways; distant from his family, unfaithful to his wife, stubborn in his later years towards quantum theory, etc. What all this adds up to is that people deify him and subsequently project their beliefs on to him. Since they respect his position and achievements, they feel that his views are vastly superior to that of scientists in today's world. However, it must be understood that Einstein was neither a philosopher, or had the theoretical knowledge and wealth of the last 60 years to draw upon. His notions, though far advanced for his time, are now expanded upon and further understood. What was once his theories of general and special relativity have become well understood by many physicists, and they have further labored (just as Einstein did in his last 30 years) towards unifying these concepts of gravity with the other three fundamental forces (known as a Grand Unification Theory, or GUT). Although we're no closer at approaching unification, we have a much better understanding of relativity and yet, must realize that Einstein doesn't speak for all scientists or philosophies. People cannot use his views on religion as a justification for belief or disbelief. He was an important human being, but is now dead and gone. His beliefs, though important and relevant to him have been long buried along with his body. It doesn't matter what his religious views were, just as it shouldn't make a difference as to what Newton, Galileo, Darwin, and others believed. We should form our opinions based on this mountain of scientific evidence collected through the centuries regardless of the personal beliefs of those involved. Their scientific achievements are a totally different and far more important matter, but whether they believed that shooting ducks in a barrel filled with tomato sauce or running puppies over while riding intoxicated on morphine on a unicycle, was a fun method to pass the time, shouldn't matter.

Fear of Knowledge and "Elitism"

As long as human beings have been around, and probably even earlier (among hominids like Neanderthals and perhaps even Homo Erectus), it is well known that individuals possessing a great deal of knowledge are very important for the preservation and continuation of society. These individuals, which we now call experts have spent their lives studying phenomenon that has lead to novel methods of illumination and revelation. As human society has expanded, so has the role and importance of experts. During the initial stages of human civilization, certain individuals we now call Shaman, or witchdoctors were trusted to possess knowledge that was seen as critical towards the survival of a tribe or even society. They were often entrusted to have knowledge of the natural phenomenon that occurred around their limited world-view. They were often found working with the beliefs that made logical intuitive sense. Their understanding of botany, atmospheric phenomenon, and geological changes was extremely imaginative and elementary compared to what we now know, but in their time and place, they had the wisdom and know-how that individuals trusted for their survival. Perhaps their understanding was limited compared to our own, but they far exceeded their peers, and thus, were often consulted as "experts". As humans settled and civilization matured, new niches were created within society for new kinds of experts. Suddenly, there were priests, astrologers, blacksmiths, geographers, agronomists, animal husbandry practitioners, etc. These individuals occupied important positions in society and thus, were frequently consulted for advice and even philosophical insight. With the advent of science and the scientific method, there are countless niches that are being filled with individuals possessing specific knowledge. Even in the recent past, such as during the Enlightenment, many retained generalized knowledge across vastly different disciplines, but as our base of understanding expands, newer and more specific frontiers are discovered and subsequently occupied by very wise and learned individuals. As an analogy, one can think of an elephant and octopus. An elephant has a single trunk it uses in various different ways, whereas an octopus has 8 arms, with each able to undertake a specific task. Modern day society is very much like an hyper-octopus, with millions of arms each obtaining some specific insight and adding to a thorough understanding.

The recent progress that science and technology have provided to society cannot be underestimated. Through the countless work of millions of driven and wise individuals, a large base of knowledge has been established that continues to grow and add through refinements in the scientific method and developments based on that principle. Concurrently, as fields of expertise have expanded, certain other roles are slowly becoming relegated to the past. Blacksmiths, whose role cannot ever be understated in past society have largely disappeared, with only a few individuals practicing it for the sake of art or very specific niches. Similarly, one would expect the role of religious experts to disappear. As science expands and contradicts the mythical and imaginative stories that many religions are based on, the individuals practicing this nonsense should theoretically be relegated to the role of mythologists. Yet, we see a growing sense of dread for billions of people in the possible loss of these "experts". I have already tackled the reasons many are unable to uncoil this reality numbing python wrapped around their minds in previous posts, but it must be restated that through ignorance, need for comfort, seeking of authority, group thinking, and indoctrination the sense of wonder and reality about the universe is snuffed away. These people grasp at any possible link that although false, may give them a sense of ignorant and blissful inner peace. They purposely close their minds or of those who are willing to tread the fence, stop just before fully crossing into reality and rationalism by purporting to feel empty without their indoctrinated belief system. Ultimately, this fear of the unknown is reinforced and continuously indoctrinated throughout the believers' lives. The fear of having only one chance in life, only one shot on this planet as a biological organism, fragile, and readily influenced through any whim of the cosmos stops many in their tracts, and in fact, results in their hatred towards those who are unwilling to stop at an artificial line.

The ignorant individuals who have developed a sense of fear and mistrust of knowledge eventually deem those who possess those specific traits as a danger to society and view their behavior negatively. The label "elitist" is tossed around these days, by congressmen, media pundits, and even a would-be presidential candidate. The proverbial camelid back breaking straw was when Hillary Clinton referred to Barack Obama's higher education and impassioned, educated speeches as elitist. Suddenly, half the country decided that elitists were evil, snobbish, and didn't care about the working class. Yet, when one really looks at politicians, most of them are traditionally elitist. They have power, money, influence, and most important, view themselves as privileged when compared to the rest of Americans. These people in such lofty positions are all elitist. The scientists, educators, inventors, researchers, and the like are modern day experts, not the elite. These are people who are working hard to further society, and help humanity, while politicians bicker and cause hatred and division among the populace to further their own egotistical agendas. They set the stage for their children to continue in their footsteps, as in the case of the Bush family. These are the elite that the populace should fear, not the learned, and educated individuals. Knowledge is nothing to fear when taken ethically and responsibly but unfortunately, few will ever come to understand this concept. Society will continue to treat children who possess the drive and will to learn as nerds, geeks, dorks, bookworms, etc. It's no surprise that the average American would rather have a President in office that they could share a drink with, play monopoly with, shoot deer, treat them like children, and continually police and suppress their free thought with the public's blind acceptance and enthusiasm. It should further be understood that not all individuals are born with the personality traits conductive towards acquiring all forms of knowledge, but most every individual has certain latent talents and behavioral characteristics that can allow them to occupy certain important niches in society. The shame of having so many people turn their back against knowledge is that many of them can be instrumental in embracing the future, but because of ignorance, politics, and intimidation or fear, they will take the easy road and become resistant towards personal growth and development. When they do seem to embrace personal growth, it's often directed towards useless endeavors like religion or spirituality. It's no secret that religion's greatest fear is knowledge, thus the story of the forbidden fruit and clichés like "ignorance is bliss". Yet, the knowledge is there to be ascertained and the possibilities are both gratifying and infinite. If stating these facts make me seem elitist, then be it so, but there's nothing negative about it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Armenian Genocide Victims?

As April 24th approaches each and every year, Armenians all over the world commemorate the single greatest tragedy that ever befell the Armenian people in collective memory. In brief, the Ottoman Turkish Empire that had rules large regions of West Asia and the Balkans had dissolved to a point where chaos ruled, and a scapegoat was needed to divert from inherent problems present due to dysfunctional governing, and poor economic policy. Armenians, having been inhabitants of the region for thousands of years, predating the Turks by at least 2,000 years, were singled out and labeled as traitors to the Turkish cause, and were massacred by well over a million individuals. Nearly all the survivors were subsequently displaced, and fled to establish the global Armenian Diaspora that remains to this day. Similarly, the Greek and Assyrian inhabitants of the region (also predating the Turks by thousands of years), where also summarily massacred and displaced. As these populations were considered disloyal, due to their Christian backgrounds, and ethnic independence, they were wiped off the modern face of what's now Turkey. From the late 19th Century, to the peak during World War I, and the subsequent years that lasted well into World War II, millions of individuals were killed, with their history and their ties to the region severed. The thousands of years of architecture, books, language, music, and other such unique aspects to culture were lost forever. It is therefore of no surprise that Armenians identify themselves as victims, and to this very day, believe that the world owes them an apology. Through the eyes of such enlightened entities as Western Europe, the United States, and Russia, the Genocide perpetrated against the Armenians lasted for well over 20 years. Feeling as though this inaction was a crime in itself, Armenians have been pushing for at least half a century to have the world recognize the Armenian Genocide as they recognize the Nazi Holocaust. They associate themselves with other victims, such as the Jews of Europe, and blame many cultural problems on this collective trauma. The fact is that although it is the moral duty of any rational and enlightened country to recognize a Genocide, Armenians are owed nothing. We must realize that our cultural intensity should be directed at greater problems than the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The true victims of the Genocide are no longer among us, but the survivors are not just victims, but individuals with the power of an entire culture to draw from. As hard as the Genocide was on the Armenian psyche, our culture rebounded from these atrocities with a greater drive and intensity. We were no longer inhabitants of a backward quasi-imperialistic entity, but inhabitants that have spread our culture across the world.

As Armenians around the world debate within the legislative branches of their governments for Genocide Recognition, their resources could be better aimed at actually assisting an entity that has managed to emerge from the ashes of such trauma. The Republic of Armenia, as small as it is in area, landlocked and surrounded with barren terrain, is still a soil that is sovereign and independent. After nearly three thousand years of constant battles, an internationally recognized constitutional state has emerged. The obstacles have been numerous, and every advance seems to highlight areas that seem to have recessed or stagnated. Recently, Armenia has been through the most divisive issue that has surfaced in this infant Republic. As the Presidential Elections of 2008 approached, the opposition, lead by the formerly disgraced President of Armenia (Levon Ter Petrossian), staged a massive and violent protest, aimed at the apparently corrupt rule of the outgoing President Robert Kocharian. This protest released a lot of resentment building up within Armenia, regarding those that aim for Western influence, and others who are reliant on Russian influence. As has been the case in Armenian history, the region has become a volatile place of world powers, aiming to deftly, as well as overtly, influence Armenia's future. Armenia has once again become a buffer state, that can be manipulated and manhandled. As the international Armenian community uses their well intentioned influences towards Genocide Recognition, Armenia teeters on the brink of chaos. The possibility of losing the sovereign nation that has spent well over 700 years to regain sovereignty seems to bypass the minds of many Genocide Activists. If Armenians cannot unite and organize to save the Republic, then what good is Genocide Recognition? As the world watches, Armenians are killing each other over foreign influence of the region while a great opportunity for advancement and modernization passes by as quietly as the wing flaps of an owl.

Having just highlighted the problems that have come from tunnel vision focusing squarely on Genocide Recognition, the possibilities of reinventing ourselves is infinite. Armenians need look no further then modern states to see how a small nation, with seemingly few resources can become a major player and partner to the modern global economy. As an example, Singapore, even in the 1950's, was largely an agricultural and rural country. Yet, within a few decades, it had become powerful enough to lead the world in certain industrial and financial sectors. As of late, many biotechnology companies have moved there to embrace the growing sector that's become the focal point of asian economics and future development. Switzerland is another example of what a country, in this case, one with many different linguistic and ethnic groups, can accomplish if they unite for a common purpose. Armenians, having a shared culture, need not have the ethnic concerns that governed Switzerland, yet, as far as banking and finance are concerned, no other country in the world can compete with Switzerland. Although banking has become a global business, and very difficult to establish as an entity similar to Switzerland, information technology, biotechnology, and modern research and development can be key in Armenia's future. If Armenia can establish a transit hub for technology linking Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, the possibilities are endless. Although there are many drawbacks towards being landlocked in a contentious area of the world, one of the benefits is that it becomes a transit point for economics. Even as far back as the Silk Road, Armenia had been the midpoint of trade between China and Europe. This kind of hub mentality could definitely translate to the modern global economy. As Armenians around the world reinvent themselves, and shake off the victim label that they so proudly wear, much more can be accomplish. We can help to steer Armenia into having the internal strength and equality to many powers of the region, and for once, control our own destiny as a people. No more shall we be prey towards the tide of political influence, begging for scraps at the table, when we could proudly become equal trade partners to many areas of the world. The Armenian Diaspora, along with the Republic of Armenia can finally focus on something beyond Genocide Recognition and declaring to the world that Armenia was the first to declare Christianity as a State Religion. These days, who really cares about either of those two things besides Armenians? What matters most is where we will be as a people, and a culture a century from now. Will we remain pawns in the global game of power and influence, or will we finally break free of these bonds and declare ourselves active participants of the Modern world economy? This is the question that every Armenian, both foreign and domestic, must ask themselves.