Saturday, April 26, 2008

And that’s how I started using post-its…

Like a carrot, the green leafy bit is only the beginning.

She told me her grandfather was a decorated war hero in World War One, for the Germans, not for the allies. It wasn’t until the Second World War that these accomplishments really proved their worth. As Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, being a Jew living in Berlin, her grandfather was aware of the present possible need to vacate Germany. Perhaps it was that fervent desire to stay at home, or the political connections and respect he had gained as a war veteran, but the family decided to stay. When the raids started, they were fine, the political connections held, and the soldiers didn’t arrest them, they had a coded knock which cued the occupants to quiet-down, pretending no one lived there. There became a point during which it became harder and harder for this ruse to continue until a point at which the soldiers told them they should probably leave. This advice was taken, and they made their way to Florence, where they set out to find a country still accepting Jewish refugees. During the war, countries created a refugee quota system, only accepting a certain number of refugees from each European country. This has has been considered to be an extremely controversial policy, as few refugees were accepted, making some question the appropriateness of the allied response to the massacre that was taking place in Europe. (Though the extent of western knowledge of the holocaust is disputed, in that the goings on in the death-camps may or may not have been known, it was pretty clear that genocide was occurring, and that people needed to be saved). But I digress…

One of the few countries still letting in Jews was Israel, but upon attempting entry, the family was turned back at Suez. There was another country accepting refugees…China. In fact moving here was not the intense cultural experience it might have been at another time, as there was a growing community of Jewish people in Shanghai, the result of a world of closed doors.

In fact many such communities have impacted China. At the turn of the century, the town of Qingdao was ceded to Germany, after its strategic importance was deemed valuable to the European state. Physical occupation lasted until World War One, but with longer lasting effects. In 1903, German settlers founded the Tsingtao brewery, whose beer is probably the most famous of China. Equally, in Shanghai, there are still signs of the Jewish settlement in the form of Museums a thriving Jewish community and Synagogues.

She then told me how her grandfather, holding a PhD in Philosophy was always told that he had achieved a degree in nothing. (Though I must personally contest the importance of philosophy, I happen to hold it in very high regard, I must admit, especially at wartime; the demand for such trained individuals is not as high as for others with training in more practical applications). Coming to terms with this reality, he employed his skills as an orthopedic shoemaker instead. Something he was able to rely on throughout his 12 years in China.

It was her father that was in a tougher position. Having been too young to have achieved substantial schooling before the war, he had little to fall back on in their new home of Shanghai. After the Japanese invaded in 1937, however, he was given an opportunity. Her father was a boxer with some experience under his belt, and the Japanese, seeking entertainment for their troops, employed him. The Japanese, though, with propagandistic interests in mind, placed her father in bouts with boxers in much heavier weight classes. The result was quite punishing, not only in terms of temporary physical damage, but long-term memory effects as well.

While growing up, she told me how her family had developed the practice of constantly helping her father with his memory. This entailed exercises to help stimulate memory, such as remembering number sequences etc. In fact, her father was only able to remember certain things when written in list-form. Though this was targeted to help the dad, it also helped the children. She explained to me how IQ testing was still a general practice at that time. Though it doesn’t speak volumes for IQ tests, the at-home memory practice had paid off. To her mother’s dismay and contention, her teacher considered her a genius and brilliant student based on her off-the-chart scores. The teacher explained that she was capable of memorizing number sequences and reciting them forwards and backwards etc. Her mother’s response was simply “well, that’s what we do at home every day”. … “and that’s why I use tons of post-it notes”…explained my boss. I don’t really understand the connection, wouldn’t memorization abilities render post-its useless? I suppose she was emphasizing the writing of lists (to then be memorized), in any case, just another day at the office.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

HS, SS... and no we are not talking about ships.

Human Security has been defined as the following by the UN Development Program (UNDP):

• Economic security (assurance of basic income)
• Food security (physical/economic access to basic food)
• Health security (minimum protection from disease and unhealthy lifestyles)
• Environmental security (protection from short and long-term ravages of nature/ protection from man-made threats/ protection from deterioration of natural environment)
• Personal security (protection from physical violence: from state/external state/individuals etc.)
• Community security (protection from loss of traditional relationships and values and from sectarian/ethnic violence)
• Political security (whether people live in a society that honors their basic human rights)

Stemming from this, there are two methods for achieving the above ends.

First there is what is called Freedom from Fear. This is considered to be the most pragmatic approach to HS, as it seeks to achieve protection from physical violence while still acknowledging the linkages of this form of security to the above listed areas. It is this approach that Canada has taken as its foreign policy initiative (check the links on the right, under Places to go, things to see).

The other approach is called Freedom from Want. This method contends that the elements defining Human Security (above) are inseparable. This strategy has a strong emphasis on development, where Freedom from Fear might emphasize peacekeeping, disarmament and treaties banning weapons systems, such as land mines. The fact that this approach aims to alleviate threats in so many areas has led it to be considered less feasible in the current state of affairs.

However, at present, we see the linkage between the seven elements defining Human Security. The passage quoted on April 22nd, from the New York Times, outlined how rising food costs have led to widespread demonstrations and violence in Haiti. In other regions of the world, the food crisis has meant force dietary changes. In Liberia, the high price of rice has seen an increase in the consumption of pasta. (see this) Some have taken it lightly: "Liberians traditionally only eat rice with sauce. This might be an opportunity for us to diversify our diets," but perhaps more caution would be advisable.

As the Ebola virus, the West Nile virus, SARS, Bird Flu, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy and HIV/AIDS have so morbidly confirmed, the linkages between animal disease and human disease are not negligible. The present food crisis notwithstanding, Africans have been diversifying their diets for decades, turning more and more towards animal-consumption. In 2006, 600 million wild animals and 2 billion kilograms of bush meat were consumed on this continent.

In essence, the case for Human Security over traditional State Security (the type of security currently practiced by most states in what they perceive is a semi-anarchical international system. This is characterized by State-centred decision making, deterrence, the building of national power, large defense budgets, NATO, preemptive strikes etc.) is a strong one. With 85% unemployment rates, desertification, AIDS, drought, famine etc, the number of civil wars and genocides on one continent cannot be attributed to coincidence. There is a correlation here, and the solutions do no lie one state pitted out against another.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A little preview to the remix.

"In Haiti, where three-quarters of the population earns less than $2 a day and one in five children is chronically malnourished, the one business booming amid all the gloom is the selling of patties made of mud, oil and sugar, typically consumed only by the most destitute.

“It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt,” said Olwich Louis Jeune, 24, who has taken to eating them more often in recent months. “It makes your stomach quiet down.”"

Social Unrest
and the failure to provide human security.

The notion of Human Security opines that by guaranteeing protection from seven fundamental vulnerabilities, one can establish security not only for a state as a whole but for every individual within. This paradigm is in contrast to that of state-security, an approach that places the state front and centre as the primary actor with regards to furnishing, discussing and breeching security. This last is what we most commonly see in International Relations; the UN Security Council, NATO, realism, the prisoner’s dilemma etc. being exemplifications of State Security in actual application…

The above excerpt is an example of the issues at hand, I shall delve further presently.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

food for thought... in light of current crises.

"An armed conflict between nations horrifies us. But the economic war is no better than an armed conflict. This is like a surgical operation. An economic war is prolonged torture. And its ravages are no less terrible than those depicted in the literature on war properly so called. We think nothing of the other because we are used to its deadly effects...The movement against war is sound. I pray for its success. But I cannot help the gnawing fear that the movement will fail if it does not touch the root of all evil - human greed."

-M.K. Gandhi

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves" -Edmund Hillary

(Cotopaxi 5897 meters viewed from Illiniza 5248 meters, near Quito, Ecuador)

Having grown up near mountains, I had accepted the local examples as epitomes of the geological/geographical feature. It wasn’t until I traveled to South America that I was put in my place. It is difficult to appreciate the majesty of a mountain without it being placed next to a familiar reference point. Generally, this is difficult, as a mountain range is constituted of similarly shaped mountains. It is no coincidence that all of the worlds’ 8000+ meter mountains are found in the Himalayas.

(this is K2, 8611 meters)

(This is Mauna Loa, Largest Volcano on Earth, and one of the primary constituent of the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. What looks like no more than a hill with a touch of snow on the top is in fact a 4169 meter beast, that if measured from the ocean bottom is actually the second largest mountain on earth. (second only to its neighboring peak Mauna Kea, which when measured from its real base, at the bottom of the ocean, is around 10 000 meters high) )

Perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate the grandeur of a mountain is actually being there on one rather than gazing from afar. Hiking in the Andes, an endeavor that despite its general failure to evoke much excitement at its utterance, is probably what really opened my eyes to the sheer massiveness of the range. Like how Ron Burgundy described jogging as “apparently you just run…” hiking is just walking, but at an altitude where something so simple becomes more like a struggle between life and death. Though my description sounds extreme, I can assure you that this is little exaggeration when at 5000 meters above sea level. In fact, altitude-sickness is deadly, causing cerebral and pulmonary edema, which can lead to death in young, healthy, fit individuals. The point is that the body’s need for oxygen becomes terribly evident when the air is thin. What would normally be a simple stroll becomes a battle requiring every ounce of strength in your body. The first 100 meters of ascent may take 30 seconds, the last 100 meters towards the summit of a 5000+ meter mountain may take an hour.

(trying to breathe at 5200 meters)

It was upon seeing the Big Mountain Skiing documentary “Steep” that my admiration for such landforms really flourished. This movie sketches the history of Big Mountain Skiing, the extreme sport of getting to the top of the biggest, steepest mountains and skiing down. Before it was popular, and skidoos and helicopters common, this would entail scaling a mountain covered in snow and ice in your ski boots with an ice pick in each hand and your skis strapped to your back. They said that the first location that really saw the rise in Big Mountain Skiing was Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, located in the French Alps, where France shares a border with Italy. The location of the 1924 Winter Olympic Games, Mont-Blanc massif towers over the valley below at a height of 4808 meters. Though the region is home to several different ski-hills, it is most notable for the hors-piste skiing it offers. With a glacier extending into the valley from Mont-Blanc, the vast amount of out-of-bounds skiable terrain is evident, and it still remains one of the primary hot-spots for trek-Big Mountain skiing (climbing up a mountain in ski boots, and then skiing down). Though inviting, the region has been nicknamed “death-sport capital of the world”, it’s enticing glacier, home to hidden crevasses, the peaks hiding potential avalanches. Many of the Big Mountain pioneers remain buried here.

(Whistler is 2181 meters)

Despite this morbidity, I cannot but let my mind wander, imagining staring down a 100 foot couloir, and the potential rush of adrenaline that might accompany it. It has also led me to reconsider my perception of skiing…and the mountains I grew up admiring. Is Whistler child’s play next to Mont-Blanc? Perhaps one day I will find out.

The Inca people regarded the Andes as Sacred; the citadel of Machu Picchu was a way for them to sanctity. The Sherpa people of Tibet and Nepal believe the mountains to be the dwellings of gods, making an offering before climbing, as a preemptive apology for intruding. To some extent, I think I see where they’re coming from…

Though a picture is said to speak a thousand words… indulge yourselves in the following knowing that they fail to really capture the grandeur of the featured mountains.

(Machu Picchu, Peru, 2400 meters)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

In so many words...In so few actions.

As a reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist of a vocal part of the world, I shall indulge you with some reflection on boycott.

The power of action through inaction, boycott stems from the name of the “Real estate agent of an absentee landlord” in Ireland in the 1880s. In response to high rental rates, tenants decided to avoid dealings with Mr. Boycott altogether rather than suffer through his unsympathetic approach to land-lease dealings.

Through the power of news media at the time, the term boycott was entrenched. In fact, in today’s world, it is this same media (with the additional benefit of technological advances) that serves as the primary means for the propagation of this same technique of protest.

This custom of social expression is frequently employed. We are often asked to refrain from buying non-organics, or non-free-trade coffee for example. It seems that the term boycott has also become synonymous with most major media events, from the Academy Awards to the Olympic games. It is this last that deserves more discussion, in light of recent events.

By nature, any public event deserves scrutiny, especially one that has, controversy notwithstanding, political overtones. The Olympics are first and foremost considered one of the world’s largest sporting events, (it is in fact the World Cup of Soccer that is the world’s biggest, viewed by over 700 million people). It is, however, an impossibility to disassociate them from politics. Whether one considers the history of the games, the Olympic Torch relay (a custom first started by the Nazi party in the 1936 Olympics as a way of associating Nazi Germany and Ancient Greece as two Aryan powers ) or the fact that competitors are divided according to international boundaries, the Olympics must also be considered de facto a political event.

In fact, activist and host-country alike should welcome the use of the Olympics as a political forum. One actor can celebrate the accomplishments and grandeur of a country, another voice their desire for independence from an oppressive regime. In short, under the microscope that is the world, perhaps the supreme form of peer review, these matters at hand can be digested, analyzed, weighed, and ultimately, with some fortune or wishful thinking, resolved or realized in the world forum.

Plainly it is also an opportunity to resurrect skeletons from the closet, bring to surface things that some would rather stay buried, and so is not something that is universally embraced. In the interest of optimism, I shall not dwell...but I strongly believe in the importance of debate, argumentation and dialectic with regard to the achievement of a better understanding.

Friday, April 4, 2008

How many toes does a camel have?

“The invisible hand” is a notion that immediately evokes images of a free self-regulating market. The invisible hand is what Adam Smith says will create the appropriate balance in a free market, rendering government control superfluous. Individual selfishness will result in overall societal benefit, as it is individuals’ economic contributions that in sum equal society’s economic production as a whole.

It would seem, however, that economics also have a hand in regulating other ventures. The economic state of affairs dictates many obvious things, such as what type of transportation we live in, our homes, what we eat etc. It also dictates taste.

In response to the current American economic downturn, designers have started changing their focus from flaunted luxury to refined subtle luxury, exuded through quality and simplicity rather than flash. It is through a mastery of this that formerly little known designers such as Bottega Veneta are becoming more mainstream, while Coach has become Middle American and Hermes, something seen in every city in the world over 1million people. (Exaggeration I know, just deal with it) Bottega has embraced simplicity and quality; rather than produce something ostentatious.

I will not dwell on fashion, it is something I know little about, however, the level of interdisciplinary connection there is, even at the most obscure levels is fascinating.

In sum, this was a slow brain week.

Read more here