Ancient Discoveries

I have recently fallen in love with this series on History Channel called Ancient Discoveries. It’s entire premise is to explore and uncover some of the surprisingly advanced technological and scientific accomplishments that existed centuries ago. Interestingly, I stumbled upon it not through surfing Hulu or my television, but during my search for science videos on YouTube. This has solidified my growing respect for YouTube as a good source of knowledge, provided one knows how to sift through the junk.

The following are some of the ones I’ve seen thus far. Again, it’s very fascinating stuff, and I encourage you all to take a look.

They’re not too difficult to search for either – just typing “Ancient Discoveries” yielded pretty much every episode of every season. Most of them have been uploaded by a user named BraveManNewWorld2, whose services I’m quite grateful for. I’ve always noted how heartening it is when average people can come together on the medium of the web and exchange useful knowledge to one another. It’s strange to think that instead of consulting the traditional sources of knowledge – libraries, bookstores, documentaries – all I had to do was go on a website and do a seconds-long search. To me, this defines the most crucial aspect of the internet: the ability to find almost anything at anytime, and to contribute what you can to the great pool of data (albeit not all of it being golden of course; as with anything, one must learn to filter out the corrupt and unreliable elements).

But these videos have got me reflecting on an old source of amazement that’s always gripped me: the remarkable capacity for mankind to innovate and progress far above it’s own cynical standards. We humans gives ourselves short thrift, and to be fair it’s not entirely unfair to do so. We have a lot of stains on our history, and most of our existence has been characterized by an overwhelming proportion of humanity being gripped by ignorance, fear, misery, violence, and disease. This seems to especially be the case the father back on our timeline one goes.

But that’s what makes things like these ancient discoveries so encouraging. As a humanist, I strongly value the accomplishments, ingenuity, and raw potential of our race. Through all the corruption and moral decay – in-between our animalistic drive for power and territory – we’ve always had this spark for greater things. Somehow, even in our most primitive intellectual and ethical state, we’ve managed to produce some respectable mark of civilization, higher intelligence, and integrity. We’ve shown that there is potential for us to transcend our collective deficiencies in self-control and reason, if only for a brief moment. It’s remarkable to see such scientific and cultural progress juxtaposed with some of the most militant and despotic societies of the ancient world; if we can persevere even within our most debased societies, than one wonders how much will be unlocked as develop (relatively speaking) freer and more educated civilizations.

It gives me hope that perhaps we may tap into this at a time that we’re progressing more rapidly than ever, while in the face of unprecedented environmental degradation. Our innate curiosity and creativity has survived millenniums of ignorance and violence, so surely we can bring it to bear on our growing social and ecological challenges. Indeed, we don’t have a choice.

But if these videos help me to reflect on the best that humanity has to offer, they also remind me of the very worst. After all, a lot of these ancient developments are being rediscovered precisely because they were neglected or destroyed in the face of war, oppression, and resurgent ignorance. Imagine how far we would’ve come had it not been for our equally natural proclivity for fear and intolerance. Think of all the libraries that were burned, the sages and inventors that were killed, and the ancient centers of learning that were shut down by autocrats fearful of freethinking. Where would we be today, had the better part of our nature persevered and been allowed to continue?

It will never cease to fascinate me how we can simultaneously be commit horrible acts of destruction and stupidity alongside advancements of reason and creation. We’ve struggled with this paradox for our entire existence. Though it’s asking a lot, I can only hope that we learn from our long and ambitious history just what can potentially lie ahead. As always, I remain cautiously optimistic.

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Egypt and Libya are affecting the global economy

I have written two columns about the political uprisings currently taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. More specifically, I have described the economic effects of Egypt and Libya. To read my columns, please follow the links below.

Egypt: http://fiusm.com/2011/02/07/econ-with-neda-egyptian-uprising-elicits-global-impact/

Libya: http://fiusm.com/2011/03/07/econ-with-neda-increased-gas-prices-affect-overall-economy/

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A Brief Musing About the Unrest in the Mideast

Unfortunately,  I don’t have as much time to devote to this topic as it deserves. But I believe it merits at least a brief mention, given the remarkable nature of what is transpiring in the region.

What’s happening in the Arab world right now is unprecedented in a lot of ways. For one thing, there is the scale of protests, both within the respective countries involved and in the region as a whole. While there has been a long history of revolutions and social unrest throughout the region (particularly in each of the nations that are currently facing the most civil unrest), none of them have ever involved so many people, or occurred simultaneously in a regional and transnational manner. The protesters have mostly represented a broad cross-section of their respective societies: rich and poor, secular and religious, jobless and employed, and so on.

When a diverse number of people can come together and agree on common values – of representation, clean and accountable government, economic and social reform, and so on – the spirit of democracy becomes tangible and validated. Whatever their respective differences, the peoples of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, and other nations can agree on the same universal basics: that they should all be entitled to speak their minds, elect their leaders, and have a say in their own futures. Granted, many differences will likely emerge as time passes; everyone has a different idea about what democracy should look like, for example. But it certainly represents a great start, since Arabs are acknowledging the plurality of their political and ideological beliefs, a necessary precondition to any democratic society.

The transcendent nature of these protests is another tangential case in point. Despite national differences, included interstate conflicts, all the people of the Middle-East seem to be united together in their mutual calls for freedom and reform. The protests that are sweeping the entire region were triggered by national unrest in the small country of Tunisia. Middle-Easterners everywhere looked to that event with sympathy and understanding; they knew too well what the Tunisians were angry about and what they wanted, because they had the same experiences and the same desires . Thus, the unrest has begun to take a pan-regional character. Protesters from across both continents are united for the same goals and the same struggles. They’re communicating and assisting one another’s efforts, and looking to one other’s struggles for support and inspiration. Much as with Eastern Europe in 1989, the entire region is trying to collectively free itself from the same shackles.

And they’re doing it on their own. That is another high point in all these revolutions. Beyond a few perfunctory statements  from world leaders calling for peace and reform, these people are taking matters in their own hands. They’re not receiving international assistance, nor are they asking for it. They’re doing what we expect adherents to democratic values to do: take charge of their own fates. This speaks volume in a region that has long been influenced and intervened upon by foreign powers, particularly the United States, which had allied itself with many of these noxious regimes.

So far, America has (rightly) avoided being too involved in any of the protests, beyond making the usual calls for peace and freedom. While some have argued that it should play a larger role in supporting the Arab (and Iranian) public, I believe that America should limit it’s support to nothing more than it’s current diplomatic gestures, for two reasons:

1) The US has a bad reputation in much of the region, which is not entirely undeserved, given it’s closeness to the oppressive regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia (among others).  Any US involvement, even with good intentions, would be seen as perverse and hypocritical, and would likely taint the vital grassroots nature of these civil actions.

2) Jumping off from my first point, these events are the makings of the people, and should remain as such. It’s not our’s or anyone else’s place but theirs to decide their own future. The fact that these calls for freedom and reform are being cultivated by the public as a whole is something to be encouraged and supported, but not infringed upon. By their very nature, the goals of liberty and democracy are best achieved by the people.

To reiterate, I’m not saying the US should be completely uninvolved. Some would argue that by nature of  our considerable presence in the region, we should have some sort of role. Furthermore, one can argue that we should atone to the Arab people for being complicit in their oppression by deciding to take a stand against these tyrannies. I whole heartedly agree with both sentiments: if these regimes continue to murder more of their people, as Libya and Bahrain have, then the US lead international efforts to weight in on their cruel leaders and demand they – at the very least – cease the crackdown. I’m merely suggesting that outside nations restrain themselves from trying to play too much of a role in shaping these countries’ future.

I’ll end this report by discussing what is by far the most important and enlightening lesson from these protests: that the values of democracy, liberty, and general freedom, while often nuanced, are more universal than we realize. For years we were believed, and we even taught, that democracy wasn’t compatible with Arab culture and society; that the people of the Middle-East weren’t keen on representative government or political freedoms; that Islamic values were inherently hostile to those of democracy. Yet now, as I write this, we’re seeing millions of these people risk their lives in the name of these things we long thought were alien or unimportant to them.

Granted, I’m well aware that it’s too soon to tell what sort of regimes will emerge from those that have been – and might still be – overthrown. I know that democracy, if it does come, will take a lot of time, and likely be nothing like what the average American would envision to be ideal form. Democracy is quite a broad concept, and it has many different forms, mechanisms, and societal influences from country to country.

But when millions of people start calling for the same things we all would – job opportunities, better education, political empowerment, less corruption, representation – I think it’s a very good start.

 

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The Case of the Missing Martyrs

Since 9/11, there have been around 161 Muslim Americans that were suspects or perpetrators of domestic terrorism – out of a community of 2.5 to 7 million.

About 120 of these individuals were foiled with the help of tips or other assistance offered to law enforcement by fellow Muslims.

Also since 9/11, at least 11 Muslim Americans have killed 33 people – out of a total 150,000 Americans that have been murdered in that same span of time.

To read more on the subject, check out this rather in-depth study.

Granted, out of a community that represents 1% to almost 3% of the American population, the rate of terrorism is still higher than average, and thus something to be concerned about (though it’s declined precipitously since 2009). Furthermore, there is still the matter of Islamic extremism in other parts of the world, particularly in Pakistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan.

But domestically speaking, the reality of the situation doesn’t mesh with the public perception. Most Americans still believe that Muslim Americans are generally a major threat to the United States, including some of our congressmen. But the data makes it clear Muslims are far from a significant contributor to public safety issues. There are many more factors that are contributing to the deaths of nearly 15,000 Americans a year.

 

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The Zogby Conference and the Danger of Willful Ignorance

For the first time in a while, and since I’ve graduated for that matter, I finally had the opportunity to get back into one of my favorite pastimes at FIU: attending a public conference. This one was centered around the esteemed James Zogby, a pretty influential individual within the IR field who heads the Arab American Institute, as well as a major polling organization – Zogby International – that polls Arabs across the Mideast on a number of topics.

The lecture was largely centered around his recently published book, Arab Voices, which is predicated around the considerable amount of data he has drawn from his polling of the Arab world. The premise of the book, and for that matter his life’s work, is to present the ideas, concerns, and sentiments of the Arab world, and broaden Americans’ limited knowledge of a region that has nonetheless been of unparalleled strategic importance.

Most importantly, Mr. Zogby’s book touched on one of the things I’ve long been passionate about: the universality of the human condition. He couldn’t emphasize enough about how much American and Arab societies ultimately share in common: concerns about employment, political corruption, healthcare, job prospects for the youth, and education.

Furthermore, his data found that, contrary to popular belief, Arabs are hardly the visceral and bloodthirsty anti-Americans they are often perceived to be by the West (or that their louder and extreme voices may make it seem). Indeed, most Arabs are quite regularly exposed to American values and culture, and tend to admire both. For most of them the issue is, and has always been, American involvement in the affairs of their country and region. Most specifically, the problem concerns American policies that are detrimental to the region, such as support for autocratic regimes and our lopsided backing of Israel.

Most pressing is the lack of American soft power when compared to our strategic investments; we put far more money into military hardware and aid to dictators than we do to poverty alleviation, educational programs, and humanitarian aid. This could be said about the status of American foreign policy in general, reduced the investment and utilization of institutions like the State Department, USAID, and the Peace Corp in favor of strengthening military and strategic interests  (and while the military can and does serve a humanitarian role rather effectively, that is not it’s central purpose). Granted, there is far more to share on the matter of American foreign policy than I care to discuss in this note, but I do plan to devote an entire post to it.

Anyway, as the title makes clear, it was the other pillar of Zogby’s message what struck a much more sensitive cord with me: the pervasiveness of willful ignorance in our society. Given the topic of the book and the conference, this was of course focused mostly with respect to the Arab world and the Middle-East: the fact that barely a third of Americans could find Iraq on a map, even though we’ve been involved in the region for nearly a decade (and lost over 4,000 soldiers there); the fact that until just a decade ago, Arabs were almost exclusively portrayed in media as either terrorists or oil sheiks; that Pakistan and Iran are considered Arab countries; and that a study of history in almost any public school invariably leaves out or marginalizes the world outside of Europe.

Indeed, it is the last point that I most sympathized with, not only because I am international relations major but because I’ve noticed it first hand. I’ve only ever been to public schools. I barely recall learning much of anything about the world outside of Europe. I was introduced to South American and African civilizations in the context of European discovery and colonization, as if they had no history before then; China didn’t really exist into Marco Polo made his famous journey there. The Mideast was referenced as merely the silk road, and viewed largely in that context.

Basically, world history was either European history or Europeanized history (Western and Westernized can be used as well). Every other civilization revolved around us and only came to significance upon our interactions with them. Their introduction tended to be token or superficial; what is perhaps worse than not knowing about other cultures and regions is knowing about them only by stereotypes.

Granted, this problem isn’t unique to the United States, to be certain. But as a globalized country with much involvement and influence in the rest of the world (and with a multicultural heritage), one would think our society would have at least a slightly-above average understanding of the world around us. How is it that after decade of war in the Middle-East, we still know only marginally more about it? How is it that we can export so much of our culture across the world, yet take in so little of others? How can a nation built by so many peoples from across the world (though mostly Europe), still fail to appreciate its origins?

And that is where the willful aspect of the ignorance comes in. As Zogby himself said, the only think worse than ignorance is ignorance coupled with certitude. That sentiment reflected a very similar comment I made not long ago on my status: that arrogance was the greatest detriment to education and knowledge. The people that are most ignorant tend to be those that are most sure of themselves and their scope of knowledge – they don’t need to learn more because they’ve learned enough. Not only people devoid of curiosity, but they’re devoid of humility. Apathy and hubris reinforce our ignorance and make it far more damaging.

Just witness the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, led and supported by people who knew little to nothing about the culture, politics, and history of the region, and who consciously ignored or dismissed the warnings of those snobbish academics. Witness the growing anxiety (often manifested as blatant xenophobia) about Islam, the growth of Hispanic America, and a rising China. Granted, all these things pose legitimate challenges and are potentially threatening, but our lack of any substantive knowledge about any of them only makes things worse.

It’s one thing if someone doesn’t know something. It’s a completely different thing if they don’t care to know. And that is the most pressing problem facing this country, not only in the Middle-East and the rest of the world, but in general. Our in ability to form an opinion of something based on actual facts, or at least a sincere attempt at research, is setting us back on almost every front. No one wants to doubt or reflect or analyze. We would rather hold on to our convictions based on noting more than a cognitive bias, because of ego, insecurity, and basic familiarity. But how will face the many challenges that await us if we don’t know much about any of them? How will we be responsible stewards of this nation, and our entire planet for that matter, if we don’t even care to know about the issues?

And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am conflating ignorance with any views I disagree with, keep this in mind: if people disagree with each other because they interpret a different set of facts – or the same facts differently – that is fine and well. I’ve had many an opponent debate with me based on their own sources and their own application of sincere critical thinking; while I may find them wrong (and not always mind you; I do change my mind), I acknowledge that they didn’t make their case lightly or in ignorance. Part of the reason I take a rather centrist approach to most topics, or at least try to, is because of my exposure to honest and integritous individuals like this.

It is when we confront deliberate ignorance that problems arise. How can one argue with someone who doesn’t know the topic in question? How can one make a case to someone who doesn’t even want to sincerely know that topic either? Wise, inquisitive, and sincere knowledge-seekers of differing opinions can eventually come together, at least about some pressing issues, or can borrow or implement one another’s ideas. In other words, disagreements and differences can be superseded by a sincere pursuit of what is right and true. But if we have a large element of society that is neither educated or inquisitive, than we have stagnation or, worse still, misguided policies.

In short, as with all things that afflict, the problem falls back down to education. But it is not merely the institutional form of education that is the issue – after all, people don’t need school to learn, especially nowadays. It is something much more disturbingly deep-seated: a lack of appreciation for knowledge and the absence of educational values. We don’t know, don’t want to know, and don’t need to know. That’s a problem that has ramifications for more than just the Middle-East.

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Does our education system measure up?

Project LIT has been a little ignored lately by it’s founders. All of the writers are college students with hectic schedules, who pull all-nighters, and just barely catch a few minutes to watch Adult Swim every night.

After spending a good part of my weekend doing homework, I wondered why everyone claims that the US is falling behind in education? I’m working my butt off! Do you mean to say that students in Asia don’t even have enough time to watch Peter Griffin fight a giant chicken every night?

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, since we posted: More focus on research and development in the U.S. is a necessity.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a big reason why the US is falling behind in education, is because of how we perceive education. I must say that most students coming from a middle-class background, from a family who has been in the US for several generations, does not appreciate education the way a first-generation college student from a working or lower class family does.

It’s not big deal for college students to be indulging in some TV or a beer, but our entire mindset is wrong about education.

A new study shows that college students today spend only 16 percent of their time studying or in class and lab, far less than students in previous decades. Nine percent of their time is spent on working, volunteering or club activities, and the rest (75%) is on sleeping and socializing.

via New report: College students only spend 16% of time studying or in class | The Ink.

We go to college expecting to party every weekend and hopefully “find ourselves” before we graduate. It’s pretty much a 4-year long vacation.

In order for the US to rise up regarding education and technology, it has to start with a change in mindset among college students and their families. If students start taking their education more seriously, perhaps the professors’ bell curves are going to change, and they will be forced to make the class more rigorous.

That is how the progress can begin. That is how we can rise up to the powerful country we once were.

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16 Charitable Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day (via Philanthropy Writing)

This should be the Project LIT way to celebrate Vday!

16 Charitable Ways to Celebrate Valentine's Day This Valentine's Day, forget the wining and dining. Do something that matters. Like many people, I've had good Valentine's Days and well, not so good. The not-so-good dates back to middle school, when I, like many of my classmates, anxiously awaited one of those pink-dyed carnations from what I hoped would be a secret admirer. Much to my disma … Read More

via Philanthropy Writing

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A revolution is coming…or is it? Chaos in Egypt Poll

Project LIT readers know that it’s only a matter of time until we write a post on our opinion (and explanation) of the revolts in Egypt. But first…we want to know what our readers think of it all!

Please vote:

 

Keep updated with Project LIT to learn more about the chaos in Egypt.

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Greetings Everyone

My name is Romney, and I am new to Project LIT. I must admit, I was very pleased when I first heard about this project from Neda. I could immediately tell upon hearing the premise that this was an excellent endeavor to be a part of.

This is precisely the sort of thing our generation should be doing: promoting the coming together of diverse individuals to share ideas, thoughts, news, comments, and opinions. I have always been a firm believer that conversation and discourse are the key to human progress, as they allow us to learn about new ideas and perspectives we might otherwise have never heard of.

Communication is the foundation of innovation and development – nothing was ever created in total isolation. That is why freer societies lead the world in technological and social advancements, and why the considerable development of information technology – the internet, social media, cell-phones – has coincided with some of the most rapid developments in human history.

More importantly though, the exchange of ideas facilitates cooperation, empathy, and understanding. When we expose ourselves to someone else’s perspectives, we establish a connection. We may come to realize that someone else has a good idea we come to agree with after all; we discover shared interests and concerns; we find the common ground that unites us.

Of course, we’ll often hear or see things we don’t like. We’ll often find little, if anything, to agree with. Communication doesn’t instantly create togetherness or always mitigate hostility. But the point is, the very attempt to do so can still create a net benefit – for every person we find ourselves disagreeing with, is someone who may learn or appreciate your point of view (and visa-versa). And who is to say that disagreement must always be a bad thing?

Even if we come to realize that we don’t care about the other side, we still come away knowing something about them. Most of all, we’re able to challenge our own deeply held notions, and hold them up to scrutiny. We can either strengthen our position, or realize that perhaps we had it wrong after all. In any case, no belief or conviction should ever go untested. We must always apply inquiry, reflection, and contemplation, as it is facilitated by debate and dialogue (as well as a sincere commitment to explore a diversity of sources, such as book, periodical, etc).

We live in a world beset by numerous social, political, environmental,  and economic problems, many of which are unprecedented in their scope and scale. No single idea or perspective will be enough. No one party, idea, political wing, institution, or individual has all the answers all the time. Things change, and so does conventional wisdom. We must always allow ourselves to evolve and develop; we must always be receptive to the bigger world that’s out there, and make an effort to learn about news, events, and musings that inhabit it. It is for these reasons that I am proud and pleased to be a part of this great project.

I look forward to a very illuminating future, and I hope to do my part to contribute to it as well.

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Goldman Sachs Backs Out

“On Jan. 2, 2011, The New York Times Dealbook reported that Goldman Sachs reached out to its private clients with a chance to invest in Facebook, the hot social networking giant currently dominating the Web. With the sudden change of plans, it is unknown what Goldman Sachs is going to offer its clients.
According to The New York Times, “It is unclear how much money Goldman will raise for Facebook.” In a private memorandum to U.S. clients when Goldman Sachs originally made the offering, the plan was to raise as much as $1.5 billion. The overall deal would have valued Facebook at $50 billion, making it worth more than companies like eBay and Yahoo. The recent withdrawal from the plan is not completely warranted and people…are questioning the move. The only logical reason to back out of a plan like this is legality.”

To read the entire article, please follow this link:
http://fiusm.com/2011/01/24/econ-with-neda-financial-giant-backs-out-of-facebook/

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