Death in the Social Media Age

Social media has allowed average people to establish a persistent and indefinite presence on the internet, namely through profiles like Facebook. It’s strange to imagine that after we pass away, all these photos, posts, and other means of expression will otherwise remain permanently recorded. It can also be eerie when someone has died unexpectedly, leaving you with a timeline of last words and activities.
I’ve also seen the profiles of deceased people become shrines of sorts, with many loved ones browsing through them to capture the essence of their departed. I’m not sure of what to make of that — on the one hand, it’s nice to be able to retain so much of a person long after they die; but on the other hand, it may make it more difficult to let go.
I can imagine that very soon, it may become common for someone to mention in their will what should be done with their various social media profiles.

What are your thoughts and experiences with this?


Slideshow: Cherry Season in Aleppo — The Struggle For Normalcy Amid Civil War

Foreign Policy has another great but sobering slideshow, this time showcasing the plight of Syria’s beleaguered civilians, namely those in its largest and most contested cities, Aleppo. While we’ve heard much about the back-and-forth between the various warring factions, as usual, the fate of those in the middle is somewhat understated (which in some sense is to be expected, given that they’re passive elements in the grand scheme of the war, at least for the time being).

The article’s introduction puts it pretty well:

Aleppo has been under siege for over nine months — ever since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stormed the city limits in mid-July. More than 94,000have died throughout Syria, and close to 11,000 have died in Aleppo alone. While the international community dawdles and deliberates, while each side fights for the survival of its reality, civilians here must grapple with the fact that their old lives are gone and their future lives are unknown, and that life must somehow go on between now and then.

So people adapt and cope. The blasts of mortars and artillery fire blend into the background, the threat of snipers becomes a reality to grit your teeth through as you walk home, and dark humor seeps into the daily milieu, calming nerves with a white-knuckled laughter that holds tears at bay. Groceries must be bought, money must be made, bellies must be filled, and days must have some sort of meaning.

The reality of a civilian in war is that life must be risked in order to live. Day-to-day acts can become small feats of rebellion. Risking sniper fire on the walk to work becomes not only a testament to human resilience and our ability to adapt, but sometimes a statement: You can take my life, but you can’t take my choice to live it.

I hope this vicious bloodletting ends soon, and to the benefit of the Syrian people. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely for now: the intractable nature of this grinding war of attrition, as well as the growing sectarianism, makes it difficult to imagine that even a relatively pacified Syria will be stable for long.

RIP Robert G. Edwards

Robert G. Edwards, pioneer of in-vitro fertilization, passed away yesterday, April 10, at age 87. The British physiologist, in collaboration with obstetrician and gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe (who died in 1988), successfully pioneered conception through IVF, which led to the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. For this he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As of today, over 4 million babies have been born through IVF. Louise Browns had said that “his work, along with Patrick Steptoe, has brought happiness and joy to millions of people all over the world by enabling them to have children.” His work was motivated by his belief that “the most important thing in life is having a child.”

Watch a video portrait of his life and achievement here.

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.


It’s been calculated that the total number of humans that have ever lived was around 107 billion. By comparison, note that as of 2013, there are a little over 7 billion people alive right now, the highest amount of humans that has ever lived at one time.

To get a grasp of how long it’s taken us to get here, consider that we only hit our first billion around the mid-19th century. So our population has increased seven-fold in a little over 150 years, owing to a convergence of advancements in agriculture, medicine, public health, and sanitation.

But most of these 7 billion people — like most humans that have ever lived at any time — are mired in poverty, disease, insecurity, and tyranny. The overwhelming majority of them will never know any other existence but one of struggle — and incredibly, this is a measure of progress, because for as long as this species has been around, anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of a given population was composed of serfs, peasants, and slaves — people without political or economic power, and thus without the subsequent comforts that such things bring.

It wasn’t even that long ago when only 1 to 5 percent of people in the most industrialized countries managed to obtain secondary education, and this remains the case in many poor countries today.

Therefore, those of us reading this status update represent an incredibly miniscule fraction of our species that is literate, relatively well-off, and most likely to live a long and comfortable life, comparatively-speaking. By a mere accident of birth, we’re exceptionally lucky and exceptionally rare. We know and enjoy things that most humans never had the chance to, and that the overwhelming majority of our species still remains without.

It’s sometimes difficult to grasp my level of privilege, and how fortunate I am, by mere random chance, to have this life. We’re only given one shot at existence, and mine just happened to emerge at the right time and place. I must never forget that. I must never squander the subsequent resources of my privilege. With this advantage, which I am no more deserving of than the billions of other people who live (or have lived) on this Earth, I must do my best to be good and just and beneficial to the world.

Luck, Privilege, and Responsibility

The Casualties of Veterans Day

Unfortunately, I was too busy yesterday to make a proper post about this commemoration. And while I’m tempted to make an idealistic and reflective post about the courage and tribulations of those in uniform, or to share the origins and history of the event, I wanted to take a different route from what is the norm.

I read an article in Foreign Policy that reminded me not only of the true origins of Veterans Day, but on how the loss of its original source of commemoration has been detrimental to our understanding of war.

All of our nation’s veterans are honored on November 11, but it is important to recall that the origin of this observance was revulsion at the horrific casualties suffered by so many countries during World War I. Yes, a second and even more destructive conflict followed all too soon after the “war to end all wars,” impelling a name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. And the rest of the 20th century was littered with insurgencies, terrorism, and a host of other violent ills — most of which persist today, guaranteeing the steady production of new veterans, of which there are 22 million in the United States.

But despite the seemingly endless parade of wars waged and fresh conflicts looming just beyond the bloody horizon, World War I still stands out for its sheer horror. Over ten million soldiers died, and more than twice that number were wounded. This is a terrible enough toll. But what makes these casualties stand out even more is their proportion of the total numbers of troops mobilized. For example, France put about 7.5 million soldiers in the field; one in five died, and three out of four who lived were wounded.

The other major combatants on both sides suffered horribly as well: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s 6.5 million soldiers had a combined rate of killed and wounded of 74 percent. For Britain and Russia, the comparable figures totaled a bit over 50 percent, with German and Turkish losses slightly below one-half of all who served. The United States entered the conflict late, and so the overall casualty rate for the 4.3 million mobilized was but 8 percent. Even so, it is more than double the percentage of killed and wounded from the Iraq War, where total American casualties amounted to less than 4 percent of the one million who served.

Few conflicts in all of military history have seen victors and vanquished alike suffer such shocking losses as were incurred in World War I, so it is worth taking time to remember how this hecatomb came to pass. A great body of evidence suggests that this disaster was a product of poor generalship. Historian Alan Clark’s magisterial The Donkeys conveys a sense of the incredible stubbornness of high commanders who continued, for years, to hurl massed waves of infantry against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. All this went on while senior generals stayed far from the front. A British field commander, who went riding daily, even had soldiers spread sand along the country lane he followed, to make sure his horse didn’t slip.

Indeed, World War I is often overshadowed in its barbarity by what followed it only around two decades later. But in many ways, as the article notes, it was just as tragic and horrific (all the more so because its very occurrence, along with the failure and arrogance of its victors, gave way to a second world war). It was also an ultimately unnecessary conflict that dragged on for far longer than any participant expected – a war that perpetuated itself beyond the need to rectify its original casus belli, and which did so at the literally unimaginable cost of millions of lives. Millions of individual persons (I feel the need to emphasize this as sheer numbers make it hard to remember the humanity of those they represent).

WWI was also but a large-scale example of what average troops, mustered mostly from the lower and middle-classes, have had to endure throughout history: being at the mercy of military and political leaders who were often too detached, elitist, and arrogant to take into account the well-being of their grunts. So long as there remained an ample supply of politically and economically powerless young men, there was little reason – in WWI or elsewhere – to be concerned about attrition – there were plenty of other men where those came from (though cruelly, this brutal calculation on the part of the Soviets in World War II is arguably what helped us win the day: they took on the overwhelming majority of Axis forces by sheer numbers, tenacity, and ruthlessness).

So after having read this piece, I came away with the idea that not only should veterans be rightly recognized for their courage and service, but that we mustn’t forget the horrors and brutality they (among others) had to endure in the wars they fought. All too often, I get the impression that we honor the valor and glory of those who served while forgetting that in most instance, even the “good” and victorious wars they partook in are tragedies in themselves. We should honor veterans not just be recognizing what their service but also by ensuring, as much as possible, that generations of young men won’t be grinded up or maimed in the cold machinery of war.

War, even when just and victorious, is always a terrible thing. It will always cost lives and create acrimony between men who may otherwise have no good reason to hate each other, let alone kill one another. I know that there will always be a need for war. I know some wars may be necessary. But just because something is needed doesn’t mean it isn’t detrimental or regrettable. Whether or not men and women had to answer the respective calls of duty that they did, doesn’t change the horror that they faced. They did something few of us would ever want to do – for good reason.


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.

Coping With Death

I’ve studied the topic of death pretty extensively, particularly the psychological, sociological, and philosophical aspects of it. It’s also an intimate part of my majors: history, politics and international relations are each rife with wars, famines, state tyrannies, and the like.

Through it all, I’ve become convinced that humans have never really found a way to cope with death, either collectively or individually. But that may be due to my own narrow experience and understanding of the subject. So I pass it on to you: how have you all coped? If you don’t know by personal experience, or don’t care to share it, what are your own theories or things you’ve read?

Blogger Reflects on Narrowly Avoiding a Shooting In Toronto, Only to Die in the Recent Massacre in Colorado

This was the last blog post of Jessica Redfield, a young reporter who was sharing her thoughts about coming close to death at a mall shooting just a few weeks before she would die at the recent gun massacre in Colorado. It’s unsettling that the following reflections would be her last mark on the web:

I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.

I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.

I feel like I am overreacting about what I experienced. But I can’t help but be thankful for whatever caused me to make the choices that I made that day. My mind keeps replaying what I saw over in my head. I hope the victims make a full recovery. I wish I could shake this odd feeling from my chest. The feeling that’s reminding me how blessed I am. The same feeling that made me leave the Eaton Center. The feeling that may have potentially saved my life.

I think I’m all the more perturbed by this consider that I, too, right those sorts of reflections about life, death, and the fragility of our existence. I guess seeing someone with similar observations die so suddenly makes me realize that even being consciously aware of life’s delicateness will do little to save you.

You can find her Twitter account here, where she posted what would be her chilling last words: “movie doesn’t start for 20 minutes.” She had no idea what was to come. How could she? As her post stated, no one ever really knows. Even as I right this very post, I may die from some freak accident or random act of violence. Who knows what post of mine will be my last?

These arbitrary and senseless killings are disturbing enough, but they’re made even more disquieting in an age where people leave their imprints online, and communicate instantaneously throughout the day, often giving you a very last glimpse into their thoughts and actions before they die.

An Atheist Discusses Death

And not just any atheist, but the esteemed Sam Harris, one of the “Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheist” movement. It’s a long video, but it’s well worth the time. Concerns about mortality are probably the biggest impediment to the acceptance of a nonreligious position, not to mention a source of anxiety for people of any faith. Thus, it’s great to see a fellow secularist make an attempt to resolving our awareness of a finite existence.

Granted, even Sam’s (eloquently presented) solution isn’t a complete panacea, but it’s certainly a start, and at the very least it’s opening up more useful dialogue and discussion about this very important issue. It’s definitely got me thinking, and I hope it elicits the same among some of you.