A Brief Address to Former Strangers

One of the strangest feelings is looking back on the period of your life before you knew your current friends or lovers, while keeping in mind that they were still around out there. Before I knew any of you, we were each going about our own independent lives completely unaware of each other’s existence.

Then all of a sudden, on some fateful day, our lives intersected. Your presence became known, and our lives were no longer totally separate. From my perspective, your history doesn’t begin until I meet you.

Furthermore, you were a very different person before I got to know you, and visa versa: with time, I began to forget what it was like not to know or love you; it starts to feel like you were always there in my life. Even if we lose touch, our lives will remain irreversibly influenced or impacted in some way. You’ll be a part of my narrative in some way or another until my story ends (and visa versa).

I wonder what other former strangers will enter my life. People I could never conceive may some day spontaneously cross paths and become acquaintances, colleagues, friends, lovers, and maybe even enemies. It is both exciting and, given my recurring social anxiety, a bit scary at the same time.

The Troubled Waters of South India and How It Impacts Us

I love and appreciate art of all kind, especially that which brings attention to important issues and conveys them in an impactful and digestible manner. Such is the case with the photographs of Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, who has captured the lives and struggles of South Indian coastal communities while bringing attention to a troubling intersection of several modern global problems.

Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu. Fishermen protest near the proposed nuclear plant on World Fisheries Day. Credit Selvaprakash Lakshmanan / New York Terms

The New York Times offers a great slideshow and summary of his brilliant and thus far unique project, as very few journalists or photographers have explored this area.

It was as much an environmental project as a human one, he discovered. As he learned while making “Life in Troubled Waters,” the harrowing issues facing these communities encompassed many symbolic and complex problems that resonate in the globalized 21st Century.

Mr. Lakshmanan was educated about the environmental issues while serving as a participant journalist for the Fojo Institute’s Coastal Management program. “With most of my stories before, it was more people-centric,” he said. “And the cause made me look, holistically, at how it is closely connected to the environment and the social, geopolitical, and economic issues. Each issue is interconnected, either in a direct or indirect way.”

While interviewing residents of villages in Tamil Nadu, he learned that an increase in shoddy industrial construction on the shoreline had led to erosion, which threatened the fishermen’s houses. Several of his photographs documented homes falling back into the sea and the attempts to build storm walls that buttressed against its power. Rising tides, a byproduct of climate change, presumably played a part too.

Indeed, Lakshmanan’s work is sorely needed, since this part of the world — like so many others — remains invisible to the wider global community, let alone the powers that be.

Since most of India’s massive population lives in inland cities, the coastal areas he’s investigating are typically underreported and overlooked. It is Mr. Lakshmanan’s mission to bring awareness of what’s going on in those areas. He has seen the effects of coal-fueled, thermal power plants spewing fly ash into the ocean. And salt mines that raise the salinity of the soil, destroying mangrove forests, which leads to further erosion. In addition, he said, “human waste and urban sewage systems go directly into the sea.”

But like so many humanitarian issues nowadays, the bigger picture is far more complex, and the intrepid photojournalist did an excellent job capturing both the nuance and global relevance of this seemingly localized issue:

But rather than present the fishermen as blameless, Mr. Lakshmanan was quick to point out why the Sri Lankans are so angered by the poaching. Apparently, the Tamil Nadu fishermen use a technique called bottom trawling, which has been banned in Sri Lanka but not India. In this type of fishing, nets are dragged along the seabed, which destroys fragile Sri Lankan coral reef ecosystems.

This was confirmed earlier in the year by Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, the Sri Lankan Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Development, who said, “Because of this method of fishing, the bottom of our Northern sea and the marine environment get completely destroyed. In the future there will be no fish left in the North.”

Ironically, most of the catch for which these Tamil Nadu fishermen risk their lives is then shipped out internationally or to the voracious urban markets in India. From there comes the sewage that pollutes the water, forcing the fish further out to sea where the fishermen follow, to their peril. It is a baroque tale that befits our intricately woven globalized society and perhaps a harbinger of larger resource wars to come.

It is that final point, which I have emphasized, that made this project stand out for me. It reaffirms a crucial but underestimated fact about our rapidly globalizing world: that just about every system — commercial, political, or cultural  — on every level — local, national, and regional — has significant  international connections and influences.

Much like the butterfly effect of chaos theory (which I admit to possibly misattributing), even the seemingly smallest and most localized actions can set in motion numerous other changes and consequences beyond our initial calculations.

As Lakshmanan notes at the end of the article, the environmental calamity looming over south India and northern Sri Lanka — like so many catastrophes across the world — is in large part driven by the voracious demands of consumers halfway across the planet. We take for granted how easily our goods come to our homes and stores, unaware of the exploitation, corruption, and environmental degradation we are unwittingly driving.

And just as our actions have impacts across the world, so too does the reverse happen: the destabilization and degradation resulting from our consumption will come back to haunt us, in ways ranging from refugee crises to climate change. We need a global perspective that recognizes this reality and can implement solutions across borders — no small feat, to say the least.

On Counterfactual Thinking and Negativity Bias

It seems that humans can’t help but think about the inevitable “what ifs” that we encounter in life — how things would have turned out  “if only” some factor or another was different. This is known as counterfactual thinking, and it is often problematic not only because we wrack our brains with  regret for having not taken a different path, but also because tend to only apply this train of thought to unfortunate circumstances.

Thus, counterfactual thinking works in tandem with another apparent human predisposition: a negativity bias that focuses more on the bad things that happen to us rather than the good. We’re less inclined to wonder how things could have been worse, because we’re more than happy with the results and would much rather milk the good fortune and move on.

All this makes sense: we dwell on the absence of something because our advanced cognition inclines us to wonder about such mysteries. And we focus on the negative because what hurts us is far more impactful than what doesn’t (with respect to applying this bias to news reports,  it works the same way: what tugs at our negative emotions is going to be more profound).

While there are many explanations for this tendency towards focusing on the negative, the point is, we can’t seem to help it. The bad things stand out the most, and subsequently, our regret at their occurrence makes us struggle with all the ways we — as individuals or as a species — could have prevented them.

But I believe we must make it a habit to notice the bad things that didn’t happen; to acknowledge that the absence of negativity is something to be cherished and pointed out, rather than taken as the default condition. What about making it home in one piece, when you could have very well gotten into a car accident? What about having your loved ones or your health, when the existence of both is ever so fragile? Indeed, the very fact that you’ve managed to live another day is something to be appreciated.

It is a tragedy of human nature — one very much observed throughout our history — that it takes something awful to happen to us to appreciate what life is like in the absence of that awfulness. Terrible things await all of us; inevitably, loved ones will die, hard times will come, and we will suffer and eventually expire. It can be a terrifying thought, but it’s all the more reason that we must stop and be mindful of the good times and precious moments while they last. The finiteness and fragility of life, and what is good, is precisely what makes those things so precious.

Education: An End In Itself

Whenever I’ve gone to an interview, I’ve often been asked how my undergraduate major – International Relations and Political Science, with a minor in Economics – has anything to do with the position I’m applying for. This implies that my education is only relevant, if not purposeful, insofar as it has economic value. This is all the more true considering that most of the course I took included such “soft” sciences as history, philosophy, anthropology, art, and law.

I didn’t take these subjects with the intention of making a lot of money. I had no such delusions about the economic potency of a piece of paper – which isn’t to degrade degree-seeking students or the non-monetary value of their plan of study, since having any sort of post-GED degree is still better than not. It’s just that getting a degree in itself is no guarantee of financial success. An education in and of itself is not going to make you money, contrary to what was (once) conventional wisdom.

And that’s okay. Indeed, I didn’t take these courses with money in mind at all. I didn’t pursue an education strictly for monetary enrichment. I studied because these subjects interested me, because learning is important for personal and societal well-being, and because I simply enjoyed them and felt enriched through the acquiring of knowledge.

Yes, making money is important. And yes, I had the luxury of learning for learning’s sake thanks to my scholarship, which makes my perspective somewhat biased. But my point is that my education is is my education. Learning about the world is a fun, fulfilling, and beautiful thing independent of its financial rewards.

Just because my current job has little to do with my major doesn’t mean my education was a waste of time, as some have said or implied. This once again presumes that my learning only matters if it makes me money and gets me a relevant career (and it also assumes that one’s career path is linear, as if everyone should jump straight into their job of choice rather than adapt to changing circumstances or desires).

It’s unfortunate that many in our society see an education as only a means rather than an end in itself. The value of an education shouldn’t determined solely by how much money it can make for you. While being financially successful is important, being educated and well-informed about the world should be valuable, period.

By all means, learn practical things and work to find a meaningful career. I’m not opposed to that. But learning about the world along the way – whether through a formal education, informal learning, or autodidacticism - should not be denigrated just because it doesn’t fit the commercialized paradigm of our consumerist, money-obsessed society. It’s just another way that our culture commoditizes and monetizes something that should have innate value.

But that’s a different discussion for a different day. Thoughts?

Self-Taught African Boy Impresses MIT

From  comes a fascinating story about a child prodigy skilled enough to earn the attention of the esteemed MIT. From the video’s caption (which includes additional links and information).

15-Year-Old Kelvin Doe is an engineering whiz living in Sierra Leone who scours the trash bins for spare parts, which he uses to build batteries, generators and transmitters. Completely self-taught, Kelvin has created his own radio station where he broadcasts news and plays music under the moniker, DJ Focus.

Kelvin became the youngest person in history to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT. THNKR had exclusive access to Kelvin and his life-changing journey – experiencing the US for the first time, exploring incredible opportunities, contending with homesickness, and mapping out his future.

Unfortunately, the video, which may be a tad too sentimental for some, glosses over how Kelvin managed such a remarkable feat, mentioning only that he’s “self-taught.” I’d very much like to hear him explain the creative and exploratory process that led him to do something that even those of us with the resources can’t pull off.

Stories like this – of child prodigies and other unlikely inventors – always make think: how many geniuses out there are harboring innate talents and skills that will never be known due to poverty and lack of access to educational resources? There could be millions of people just like this boy who are denied the opportunity to realize their potential. Imagine if Einstein or Newton had been born in abject poverty, without access to books, schools, or the time to focus on intellectual pursuits?

This boy pulled it off against all odds, but he’s an exceptional case: there are many more like him that remain under the radar, much to the detriment of the world. At the very least, the globalized and interconnected nature of our world (led by the internet) is allowing us to uncover such talents like never before – but it won’t be enough. The world can’t afford to let generations of potential scientists, innovators, and inventors remain unappreciated and untapped. There is no substitute for human brain power, and like any resource, it needs to be invested it and harnessed.

Disconnected

Studying war has always been strange for me. I’ve been doing it for many years, both for school and out of personal interest. My major, international relations, came into being shortly after the end of World War II, precisely to figure out the origins of human conflict and how to resolve it (obviously, it now encompasses far more than that). Chalk up the fact that I’m also a news junkie, especially for international events – which are sadly often violent in nature – and I’m steeped in human conflict.

Aside from the bouts of cynicism and melancholy that result from steady exposure to so much human misery, there’s also a sense of surrealness – I’m learning about events that have taken the lives of so many people, and ruined the lives of so many more, without really accepting that they ever happened.

World War II alone killed 50 to 60 million human beings, additionally traumatizing and wounding more than double that number, yet I read about it as if it were a fictional story. It was a real event, sure, and I’m certainly aware of its effects. But it doesn’t’ feel like it happened. I don’t connect with the millions of people who suffered horrific and senseless pain. I don’t feel the emotional and physical weight of it. Because I wasn’t there, I just don’t know what it’s like, no matter how hard I try.

It’s the same with current events too. The bombings, massacres, tribal conflicts, state-sponsored oppression – none of it really registers. It saddens and upsets me sometimes, but I don’t truly know what any of it is like. I’ve never seen or experienced it. It feels unreal because it’s not right there in front of me. When I read harrowing first hand accounts or see graphic images and videos, I can only connect so much. Try as I might, my mind is incapable of absorbing the full gravity of what I’m seeing.

And in many ways, that’s probably a good thing. I’d probably be bedridden with depression if I could completely feel what all these unfortunate people do. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that this is something of an evolutionary development: the human mind was never intended to absorb so much data, given our origins as a tribal a widely dispersed tribal species. And certainly, our cognitive limitations help us to focus on what’s immediately around us – which is usually more important – rather than what’s going on farther away (look up “psychic numbing” and the research of Paul Slovik).

But still, I can’t shake off how strange it is to know that so much has happened in the past, and so much is happening now, that I’m completely oblivious to on a deeper level. Even as I speak, people are dying, being born, or experiencing a myriad of different events and emotions simultaneously. Seven billion stories are going on at this very second, some ending and some just beginning. Billions more are behind us, and (if all goes well) many more await us. Additionally, it’s grim to imagine that the overwhelming majority of these stories are rife with injustice, misery, and hardship – though there’s plenty of perseverance mixed in there as well, since that’s what humans have always done best, given the circumstances.

Thoughts of the Day – 10/23/2012

  • The idea that our public education system is dysfunctional is pretty much a given nowadays. Indeed, just about every Gallup poll concerning education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of American schools. Yet 77% of parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, which is the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.
  • So I still see anti-Obama signs that say something like “Castro/Stalin/Hitler/Mao wanted change too” – as if to suggest that only evil people run on a platform of change. Didn’t Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and our own Founding Fathers desire change too? I mean, isn’t Mitt Romney himself running to change things up (presumably dramatically)? Change in and of itself is not a bad thing; it’s one thing to criticize certain types of it. But to essentially demonize the very concept of change shows just how absurd and petty our public discourse has become.
  • Many Americans, particularly self-identified conservatives, erroneously believe that the government spends far more on foreign aid than it really does: typically, most people think it’s 25% of the federal budget, when in actuality it’s only around 1%. Furthermore, when asked what amount they think should go to foreign aid, these same respondents – again, including conservatives – end up picking a percentage higher than 1%. In other words, most people inadvertently support more humanitarian aid than we actually provide.
  • I can think of no justification for paying an executive hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, bonuses, stocks, and other assets. Tens of millions of Americans are expected to work hard and do their job well without such incentives – indeed, low-paying jobs that offer little to no benefits make up around 60% of jobs recovered since the recession. So if a person needs an eight or even nine figure salary to do a good job, it says a lot about their ethics and integrity. Heck, in many cases they can still run a company to the ground and come away very rich, which defeats the original presumed purpose of paying them so much in the first place.

The Olympics

While I still enjoy watching the Olympics, I’m still disappointed by the strong correlation between wealth and performance: for obvious reasons, the top performers are almost always the countries with the most money and resources. Thus, the majority of events end up being contested mostly by the same dozen or so countries that have the largest economics (albeit with some exceptions, such as Romania in gymnastics, Caribbean or African countries in running, etc).

It’d be interesting to see how all the countries in the world would perform if they had access to the same finances and infrastructure. It’s no surprise that America’s highly commercialized athletes often top the charts, as do China’s representatives, who have the investment of a large state to back them up. Imagine what the world’s mostly poor countries could do with just half of those resources. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and I think the games would be far more competitive and interesting.

Just a thought.

Thoughts of the Day

  • Another day, another senseless act of violence (in reference to the recent events in Colorado). No one ever goes to a mall, theatre, or school expected to be gunned down for no good reason. We don’t wake up thinking this day will be our last. We go about our lives completely oblivious to the fragility and finiteness of our existence. Perhaps that’s a merciful thing, since it would no doubt depress us and lead to much anxiety (which would defeat the purpose of living every moment with appreciation and gusto). Maybe we should just keep it in the back of our minds at least.
  • In just about every one of these massacres I read about, there is  at least one incidence, if not several, of people sacrificing themselves to save their loved ones (or even total strangers). It’s such a strange juxtaposition of human nature: at the very same time that someone is senselessly murdering others, people are unflinchingly giving their lives to save each other. I wonder if I am capable of that sacrifice? The best or worst aspects of us can emerge during such tragedies. I hope I never have to find out.
  • Colorado, where the recent gun massacre occurred, has one of the loosest gun regulations in the country: there are no limits on assault weapon ownership, no limits on handgun purchases per month, and no permits or licenses required for gun ownership. The state has no authority to regulate guns, while safety measures such as safety lock requirements are nonexistent. With all that said, most research I’ve read suggests that gun policies, whether strict or loose, have little to no effect on gun violence. Instead, the underlying causes are child poverty, a lack of mental health services, socioeconomic inequality, and a lack of community cohesion.
  • The US has a woefully inadequate mental health system, with among the fewest people receiving psychiatric help of any developed nation. Now, many of these mental health clinics are closing down or facing budget cuts, including in public school and prisons. Imagine the consequences of this.

Troubled World

The world is beset by so many dire problems that it’s difficult to even comprehend them in the first place, let alone figure out how to solve them. During the past two weeks alone, I’ve read about our oceans being emptied of life and acidifying, climate change intensifying, a looming global food crisis brought on by said climate change, and persistent economic troubles that are worsening inequality and poverty in dozens of countries.

While the world has always had it’s problems – and as a history buff, I’m well aware of that – they’ve never been on this scale nor have they even been this existential (save for the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War). The human mind wasn’t evolved to deal with issues of this magnitude, which most people can’t even piece together let alone bring themselves to solve. Heck, we have so many intractable problems affecting us on the local, state, and national level that most people don’t even think to begin on the largest scale of all.

How do we bring together a disunited world that is overwhelmed with too many other concerns and manipulated by elites who care little about these issues? Where do we even start? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.