The Right to Draw

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils has produced another excellent short comic highlighting the plight and bravery of 28-year-old Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was recently sentenced to almost thirteen years in prison for drawing a cartoon that “[spread] propaganda against the system” and “[insulted] members of parliament through paintings”. As with all his works, it is both emotionally impactful and inspirational in its simplicity.

The quote used in the comic is taken from the speech Atena gave at her trial, the entirety of which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the harrowing events portrayed in the comic are not symbolic: as Zen Pencils notes, twelve members of the elite Revolutionary Guard came to Atena’s house, blindfolded her, and took her to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran, where many other young activist are detained and often torture. According to an Amnesty International report:

While in prison last year, Atena flattened paper cups to use them as a surface to paint on. When the prison guards realised what she had been doing, they confiscated her paintings and stopped giving her paper cups. When Atena found some cups in the bathroom, she smuggled them into her cell. Soon after, she was beaten by prison guards, when she refused to strip naked for a full body search. Atena says that they knew about her taking the cups because they had installed cameras in the toilet and bathroom facilities – cameras detainees had been told were not operating.

After being released last November, the Atena gave media interviews and even posted a YouTube video detailing her horrific experience. For speaking out she was shortly after rearrested and remains in prison. Following a hunger strike to protest the horrible prison conditions, she suffered a dramatic decline in health culminating in a heart attack; she was thereafter forced to eat again.

As of today she has only has two weeks to lodge an appeal. With enough international pressure, it is possible that the Iranian government will relent in its brutal treatment (that is certainly not unprecedented). More from Zen Pencils:

Michael Cavna, comic journalist for The Washington Post, has launched a campaign appealing to artists to help bring awareness to Atena’s case by creating their own artwork in support of Atena and using the hashtag #Draw4Atena. Can a bunch of artists and a hashtag really make a difference and put pressure on the Iranian Government to release Atena? Probably not. But just remember that Atena is currently in prison enduring terrible conditions, and if her appeal isn’t successful, she will be there for another twelve years. FOR DRAWING A CARTOON AND POSTING IT ON FACEBOOK. Don’t we owe it to her to at least try?

At the very least, we can demonstrate some measure of solidarity with someone daring to be expressive and open-minded in a regime brutally opposed to both.

Lab Grown Meat Gets A Lot Cheaper

Given the vast ethical and environmental problems involved in the raising and slaughtering of livestock, alternatives to meat consumption are sorely needed. Since most people still have a hard time getting on board with vegetarianism, much less veganism, alternatives like like lab-grown meat provide an ideal solution: something as close to the real stuff as possible without all the suffering, pollution, and waste required by factory farms (moreover, the amount of water and grain saved would now go to the millions of humans who need it).

Given the considerable amount of technology involved in cultivating flesh from scratch, early versions of artificial meat were prohibitively expensive, as more $250,000 dollars per pound. But a recent report in Popular Mechanics finds that this idea has gone from proof-of-concept to commercial viability:

There are still serious roadblocks that will keep lab-grown meat from coming to supermarkets anytime soon, but according to experts, the cost of producing it is dropping drastically. According to CNET, the not-quite-vegetarian lab-grown hamburger could now be made for about $27 per pound if production were scaled up to the industrial level.

Still, the taste is … not quite there, and the burgers (built by stem cells) are slow to grow without the use of growth hormones. But as the technology improves, the meat will become closer and closer to market-ready. And unlike a veggie burger, it’s real beef. It just happened to be grown in a petri dish instead of a cow.

While nearly $30 a pound is too steep for most of us, it’s not far off from a point at which a lot of people could seriously consider whether they could, or should, buy lab-grown beef for their next BBQ rather than the old-fashioned grown-on-a-cow stuff.

Again, this is hardly a catch-all solution to all the problems associated with meat production, especially as there will always be purists who distrust or reject the very idea of synthetic meat. But given the strain on our resources and environment — which is likely to grow exponentially as more people add meat to their diets — we may not have a choice but to continue building upon this solution.

What are your thoughts?

Innocents Marked For Death

Setting aside the wider debate about the ethics and efficacy of capital punishment, the New York Times editorial board highlights the disturbingly high incidence of innocent people ending up on death row in the U.S. justice system:

[F]ar too often, people end up on death row after being convicted of horrific crimes they did not commit. The lucky ones are exonerated while they are still alive — a macabre club that has grown to include 152 members since 1973.

The rest remain locked up for life in closet-size cells. Some die there of natural causes; in at least two documented cases, inmates who were almost certainly innocent were put to death.

How many more innocent people have met the same fate, or are awaiting it? That may never be known. But over the past 42 years, someone on death row has been exonerated, on average, every three months. According to one study, at least 4 percent of all death-row inmates in the United States have been wrongfully convicted. That is far more than often enough to conclude that the death penalty — besides being cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime — is so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use.

Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress. But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases.

In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role.

The all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs has facilitated the executions of people like Cameron Todd Willingham or Carlos DeLuna, whose convictions have been convincingly debunked in recent years. And that mind-set led to the wrongful conviction of people like Mr. Hinton, Mr. Ford and Henry Lee McCollum, who was exonerated last year after spending three decades on North Carolina’s death row.

Skyscraper Farms

Despite being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the Netherlands manages to have one of the most efficient and productive agricultural sectors, second only to the United States (a far bigger country) in value of exports.

In light of that, perhaps it is fitting that a Dutch company should lead the way in the new concept of “high-rise farming”. As Mic.com reports:

PlantLab, a Dutch agriculture firm, wants to construct “plant production units,” spaces made for growing plants and vegetables. Each unit is customizable, able to adjust and control anything from to the amount and kind of light received, a major value for photosynthesis, to how large the space needs to be — anything from a garden the size of a microwave to a skyscraper.

By either constructing buildings, or, potentially more sustainably, retrofitting existing, unused buildings, PlantLab believes they can construct spaces where plants will grow faster and more efficiently.

This means the entirety of California’s almond-growing operation could be put into something the size of a Best Western hotel, while also cutting out pesticides, producing three to five times more almonds and using 90% less water thanks to smarter hydration — all without tweaking the almond’s genetics.

Here is a proof of concept of sorts from the company’s official YouTube:

The implications of this idea are vast. Suddenly, regions of the world lacking resources or appropriate climate can grow any number of crops to suit local needs. So much space can be freed, and environments spared, while giving immediate access to food. It is also a great way to make use of otherwise derelict building — imagine how many decaying cities and suburbs could be turned into thriving agricultural centers?

PlantLab claims that with this approach, it will only need space equal to about one third of the U.S. state of Hawaii to feed the world’s population. A part of me is skeptical of this, but with some analysts projecting a global food shortage by 2050, I want to be hopeful.

The company’s TedTalk in Brainport, Netherlands is certainly intriguing.

Granted, the world already produces enough food to feed its inhabitants. Most global hunger is attributed to the inequities and inefficiencies of the global food market, as well as various shortcomings in infrastructure, investment, and transportation. None of this means that we should give up on finding solutions to improve food production; rather it is just one component of a very complicated problem.

Apple Ends (Sort Of) Ends Indentured Servitude — In 2015

It is the 21st century, and the world’s most valuable company has finally ended a practice akin to slavery, up to a point. As the Washington Post reported:

The process works like this: Employment agencies recruit workers. They then charge them placement fees for jobs, often in foreign countries. Those fees end up putting workers in debt to the agency. If that wasn’t bad enough, according to Apple’s own audits, some agencies held the passports of bonded workers in safes until their debts were paid off.

That’s right, no passports. That probably means no form of identification, and it certainly means that they can’t go home.

It’s pretty close to what some might call indentured servitude. And that’s what Apple — the tech company that has taken a lot of heat and also offers the most information about its factory conditions — has only just stopped. (It did previously ban factories from using employment agencies that charged more than a month’s wages in fees.)

This is where we are in 2015.

And before any back-patting commences, it’s worth noting that even this step is just a small one, said Scott Nova of the Economic Policy Institute, who co-authored a paper raising questions about Apple’s auditing process. Nova noted that the policy only applies to those who travel across borders to work at Apple supplier factories —  not to the Chinese workers at Chinese suppliers, many of whom also use recruiting agencies.

As the article notes, Apple is hardly unique in this and other abusive practices, as labor exploitation is pretty much the norm among tech company (and for that matter in just about every industry). Even if this one company policy was fully eradicated, many other problems remain:

While Apple has made inroads in some areas, it actually saw compliance with overtime rules fall from the previous year. Last year, 92 percent of workers of factories that the company audited kept to a 60-hour work week, a decline from 2013 when it was 95 percent. That’s not nearly as bad as levels in 2007, when it was roughly 70 or 80 percent, but it is a dip. Not to mention the 60-hour work week, which many of us would balk at, is also 10 hours more than China’s poorly-enforced law limiting the work week to 50 hours. (Technically, Apples contracts with companies such as Foxconn to manufacture its electronics and does not directly employ those workers).

Recall that most of this data come from self-reporting on Apple’s part: the picture would no doubt be just as grim among every other major manufacturer in the world. When this sort of thing is so normal and acceptable that a minor tweak in policy is considered a new-worthy step, something is certainly amiss. Consider this proposed solution to speeding up reform:

So what could Apple, or any tech company, do to speed things up? Nova suggests a model recently struck with garment workers in Bangladesh, following the horrific factory fires in 2012. In that country, he said, 200 brands and retailers fashioned an agreement with groups that directly represent workers. The deal calls for independent audits of factory conditions and promises by the retailers to put up the money to renovate dangerous facilities.

That will cost money, of course, which would eat into the relatively high profit margins that tech companies — and Apple in particular — enjoy. Improving worker conditions would also likely mean that consumers would have to be okay with slower delivery rates, Nova said. Getting swamped with orders for the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, for example, could have been a reason that Apple’s overtime hours went up this past year.

Currently valued at over $700 billion — larger than most countries’ GDP — Apple’s total revenue for 2014 was $182 billion. Taiwan-based supplier Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contractor, ended 2013 with total revenue of $131.8 billion (data for 2014 remain unavailable). I am pretty sure that a mere fraction of either company’s revenue would be enough to give workers descent treatment and pay.

I will never understand how highly profitable companies — whose executives and shareholders enjoy billions in compensation and dividends, respectively — can claim that customers must pay more in exchange for treating workers like human beings. The average corporate investor or upper manager could still remain fabulously wealthy — if heaven forbid slightly less so — while giving consumers and producers alike a better and more ethical deal.

Even if consumers should pay — and lets grant that in some cases — most of the time it will cost no more than a few cents or dollars per item, a literally small price to pay for our fellow humans to live better lives. (This applies as much to major domestic employers like Walmart and McDonalds as it does to manufacturers with global supply chains.)

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.

Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

The Suffering Refugees Who Can’t Go Home

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

— Angelina Jolie, A New Level of Refugee SufferingNew York Times

That is just a taste of the awful conditions and circumstances faced by the millions of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing some of the most savage and chaotic conflict in generations — not including the millions more displaced within their respective countries, and the hundred of thousands killed, maimed, or missing.

There can be no doubt that the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent emergence of IS from the chaos, is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral calamities in decades. It is hard to imagine that this horror is being played out in such a large scale in other crises across the world, from Central African Republic to Burma.

I have no idea how to even conceive of this suffering, let alone face it in person.

Jolie, who has a notable track record as a humanitarian, strikes me as sincere in her observations and humanism. One particular point that was salient to me as an International Relations major:

At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?

When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.

There is little more to add: after seventy years, it appears little has changed with respect to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. While conflicts on the scale of the Second World War have thankfully been absent — and still unlikely, if not ruled out entirely — large international wars have given way to chronic civil strife in certain countries that extend suffering and crisis across generations. It is awful how familiar and intractable this problem remains. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

The Philosophy of Lao Tzu

Many of the world’s ancient philosophies are timeless in their wisdom and utility. One can read the writings and teachings of Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Siddhartha, and other centuries-old thinkers and find a lot of familiar and still-relevant observations.

This is especially the case with Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi or Lao-Tze), best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism. Though well over 2,000 years old, his thoughts, reflections, and prescriptions remain as vital today — if not more so — than they did then.

The School of Lifeone of my favorite YouTube channels, offers a quick but informative guide to the sage, who is revered as a prophet and deity among religious strains of Taoism and Chinese folk tradition.

If you really like broadening your horizons on a wide range of topics, I highly recommend you subscribe to the channel, which offers a wealth of knowledge on everything from philosophy and literature to psychology and self-improvement.