Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Day 493: Human Cruelty

Human cruelty knows no bounds, it seems. We have the capacity to cause such pain - I do not understand it.



Random acts of violence

Assault and battery






Child soldiers






Global Warming




Factory farming








Something has to change.

Is this the legacy you want to leave for your children? For your children's children?

Monday, December 30, 2013

Day 492: Climate Change Disasters in 2013

In the run-up to the holidays, few noticed a rather horrifying number California water managers released last week: 5%.
That’s the percentage of requested water the California State Water Project (SWP), the largest manmade distribution system in the US, expects to deliver in 2014. The SWP supplies water to two-thirds of the state’s 38 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland.
Ending one of its driest years in recorded history for the second year in a row, California, an agricultural and technological powerhouse, faces extreme drought conditions in 2014 unless winter storms materialize between now and April, according to the US National Weather Service. 
That means farmers will receive a fraction of the water they need for spring planting, likely triggering spikes in food price as agricultural land goes fallow. “The San Joaquin Valley is facing the prospect of a record low water allocation, an historic low point in water supply reliability, and yet another year of severe economic hardship,” the Westlands Water District, which supplies water to 600,000 acres in California’s bread basket, said in a statement. The potential cost to the regional economy? More than $1 billion.
With the state already a tinderbox, a dry 2014 raises the likelihood of more catastrophic wildfires like August’s Rim Fire, which devastated parts of Yosemite National Park and ranked as one of the largest in California history.
The prospects for a wetter 2014 are not looking good. California relies on snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for much of its water. As of Dec. 1, California’s snowpack contained just 13% of the average water annual water content. San Francisco, meanwhile, has received just 38% of its average rainfall since July. Less than an inch of rain has fallen on Los Angeles in that time, or 39% of its average. - Quartz

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” President Obama announced back in January at his second-term inauguration. Thus began another year of steady climate change, continued pollution of the atmosphere and half-hearted attempts at changing the world’s dire trajectory.
By many measures, 2013 wasn’t particularly extreme: it it wasn’t the hottest we’ve ever seen; its storms, by and large, weren’t the most devastating. Much of what occurred can best be seen as a sign of things to come. Droughts, believed to be exacerbated by climate change, will become more widespread. Wildfires are expected to get bigger, longer and smokier by 2050. Twelve months, after all, is but a short moment in Earth’s history. Only in the future, looking back, will we be able to recognize the true significance of many of this year’s big numbers:
7: Where 2013 ranks among the warmest years in history, according to the World Meteorological Association. Tied with 2003, the ranking is based on the year’s first nine months, during which average temperatures were 0.86°F above the 1960-1991 global average.
395.5: The average concentration levels of CO2, in parts per million (ppm), observed in the atmosphere through November.
400: The ”milestone,” in parts per million of atmospheric CO2, that was temporarily crossed in May. It was the first time carbon levels crossed that boundary in 55 years of record-keeping — and possibly in 3 million years of history on Earth.
95: Percent certainty with which IPCC scientists say climate change is caused by human activity, a confidence level up from 90 percent in 1997.
1,100: Amount by which EPA regulations proposed in September would limit emissions from new coal-fired power plants, in pounds of CO2 per hour. The average plant currently emits CO2 at a rate of 1,800 pounds per hour.
25: The factor by which the concentration of PM 2.5 — the part of air pollution most harmful to human health — exceeded the amount considered safe in the U.S. when Beijing’s first “airpocalypse” occurred in January
1,000: Air pollution levels in the Chinese city of Harbin, in micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5, during October’s smog emergency. According to the World Health Organization, it shouldn’t exceed 20; anything higher than 300 is considered hazardous.
8: Age of girl in Harbin who contracted lung cancer.
3.8: Percent by which Japan said it would try to reduce its emissions by 2020, down from its  previous pledge of 25 percent.
1.97 million: The annual minimum extent of Arctic sea ice, in square miles. Melting this year wasn’t as severe as it was in 2012, but the remaining area was still 17 percent below average — and the sixth lowest on record.
3.2: Current average sea level rise, in millimeters per year. Sea levels reached a record high in March.
104.6: The average country-wide temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, on January 7 in Australia — the continent’s hottest day on record, in its hottest month on record.
121.3: The temperature reading, in degrees Fahrenheit, in the South Australian town of Moomba on January 12.
90: Percent confidence with which researchers at the University of Melbourne concluded, in July, that “human influences on the Australian atmosphere had dramatically increased the odds of extreme temperatures.”
129.2: The temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, recorded in California’s Death Valley on June 30, setting a record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth for that month.
2: The weather emergency level declared by officials in China during this summer’s heat wave — a number normally reserved for typhoons and floods.
1.7 billion: The estimated cost, in USD, of New Zealand’s drought — its worst in 30 years.
10: The number of consecutive months during which over half of the contiguous U.S. experienced moderate or severe drought, which finally fell below 50 percent in mid-April 2013.
72: Percent of land area in 10 Western states in drought conditions after a record-breaking heat wave in June.
3.95: Inches of rain that fell from January to November in San Francisco. When the final numbers come in, it’s likely that California will be found to have had its driest year on record.
257,000: Acres of land burned by the California Rim Fire, the biggest wildfire in Sierra’s recorded history, which caused over $50 million in damage. It was caused by a number of factors, drought and abnormal seasons included.
5.9 – 7.9: The amount of rain, in inches, that normally falls over two and a half months and instead pummeled central Europe between May 30 and June 1. Floodwaters in Germany rose to their highest levels in over 500 years.
1.3: The width, in miles, of the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma on May 20. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., caused controversy when he invoked the storm during a speech criticizing climate deniers. While researchers cannot be sure there was a link between climate change and the twister, they believe that a warming planet may host more frequent, stronger storms.
2.6: The width, in miles, of the tornado that struck El Reno, Oklahoma ten days later. It was the widest ever measured on Earth.
20 billion: Cost, in dollars, of plans laid out by NYC Mayor Bloomberg in June to make infrastructure improvements, including floodwalls and storm barriers, in preparation for the effects of climate change.
6,100: The most recent death count from Typhoon Haiyan, which officially became the deadliest storm in Philippines’ history. Bodies continue to be recovered.
132: The number of countries that walked out of the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw in protest over rich nations’ refusal to entertain the idea of compensation for extreme climate events
90: The number of global companies that together account for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report in the journal Climactic Change.
7 billion: The number of “key individuals” responsible for climate change. The Onion, as always, is spot on. - Salon

That is a lot to read through because a hell of a lot has happened. It's not just the big changes too, there are small changes happening - small meaning that they are not cataclysmic events shattering the lives of many. In the area I live in, every person I speak to who was born before 1980 says "it never used to be like this" - the weather has changed. We get some days where all the seasons will happen all in one day: the heat of summer, the cold of winter, the winds of autumn and the chill of spring. What we have come to realise is that we cannot rely on the weather patterns of the past - each day's weather may be completely contrary to what the season is.

Have we passed the point of no return? Will our innovations be enough to keep this planet safe to live on? How much worse will it get before we start to take this seriously? At what point is the cost of continuing to do nothing higher than the cost of changing the way we live? How bad does it need to get?

I truly hope that some real changes happen - and soon. Unfortunately hope does not make any real difference - our voices raised together in unison could make a difference - but so far we have relied heavily on hope. In truth, our inaction is equal to us actively sabotaging this planet - just like a mother knowing that her child is being abused yet does nothing but pray would be judged equally responsible for the abuse. We know that the planet is being abused - our apathy makes us just as responsible as the big corporations and governments trashing the environment and not keeping their promises. There are very few people who can say that they have done absolutely everything in their power to make a difference - the rest of us always have some excuse as to how its not our responsibility, or that we do not have the power to change anything. There have been many prominent figures on this planet who have made a huge impact on many lives on their own - we cannot continue passing the buck onto a small handful of people who have enough guts and empathy to stand up for what is best.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Day 491: Absolution

Catholicism includes the practice of the absolution of sins by an ordained priest after the sinner confesses his/her sins to said priest.

What is interesting about this practice is that, for many Catholics, they end up using absolution as a Get out of Jail Free card - doing all sorts of "sinful things" and then confessing to their priest. The priest will then give them some way to show their penance and so earn God's forgiveness. And therefore get into Heaven.

This pattern revealed itself to me when I was watching Don Jon, in which the main character would participate in activities that are labeled as "sinful" by the church, but go confess to a priest every week, the priest would tell him to recite a few prayers, all would be forgiven and then he would just continue with the sinful behavior. This was a cycle that repeated every single week.

Do some, or all, members of the Catholic church regard this kind of behavior as abusing the "gift" of absolution? I cannot answer that, but I can say that that sort of behavior is an exploitation of the principles of the religion. Doing this would create a mindset within a person of thinking that they could do anything they want because they believe that they will be able to go confess to their priest and pay penance and so be forgiven. Obviously this is a destructive mindset to have as it causes people to live without comprehensive consideration for the consequences of their actions.

How is this cycle of "sin and forgiveness" similar to other parts of our lives, even for those who are not Catholic? We each develop a keen ability to justify our own actions, so absolving ourselves of feelings of guilt and responsibility. This justification is not the same as forgiveness, it is closer to being shameless.

For those who use self forgiveness, it is also possible for our self forgiveness to turn into self absolution - absolving ourselves of our sins in order to continue "committing sins" guilt free. This is not self forgiveness, it is another form of justification. Real self forgiveness only exists when one corrects ones behavior and thoughts. Real self forgiveness is the act of giving yourself the opportunity to correct oneself without the baggage of your past smothering you. Anything else is an abuse of the principles that forgiveness embodies.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Day 490: Who do Zoos Exist for?

The young elephant has tugged at his shackled hind leg so often that the manacles have cut through the flesh, leaving it raw.
Not that freeing himself would help. A chain on his left front leg means he can move neither forwards, backwards nor sideways.
The elephant’s owner has tethered the youngster because he prefers to tend to his small shop in the grounds of the Surabaya Zoo in Indonesia.
Money comes first. And so, day after day, week after week, the elephant stands there, being released from his chains only at the end of each day.
Anyone finding the scene depressing, and who turns away to look for more happy animals in the zoo would eventually leave, as I did, utterly depressed.
Surabaya Zoo has been branded the worst in the world and when I walked through this animal torture ground I was left in no doubt its reputation was well earned. - MailOnline

Zoos certainly do not exist for the good of the animals inside them. I am not saying that all zoos routinely abuse the animals in their care, but in truth, the animals should not be in a cage in the first place. Zoos only exist to serve our own interests, the primary interest being money.

We try to teach our children to treat others the way that they would like to be treated - clearly we are failing. We are definitely not setting that example for them, as we do things to others (people & animals) that we would never want done to us or our kids. Of course one of the reasons for this is that we do not regard the experience of animals or other lifeforms as being equal to how we experience life, so we justify ourselves by saying that the animal is not in pain - obviously the animal cannot speak up for itself.

We have in no way placed ourselves in the positions of the animals upon whom we have forced these lives (the same goes for the food industry - but that is for another post). We have not truly considered what it would be like to be one of those animals, we lack the empathy to truly place ourselves in another's position - we are only capable of thinking in terms of what we would want according to our beliefs of what they would want. We have twisted our perceptions to suit our needs so that it makes it easier for us to place others in the situations we place them in.

In other words, we have made ourselves believe that the animals "like" being in their cages.

Even if we acknowledge that the animals are unhappy there, sometimes we believe that the ends justify the means - meaning that their unhappiness is an acceptable price to pay for someone's livelihood.

The idea that we do not have a choice but to do things that we don't want to is misconceived. We are the masters of our world - we are the ones who have deemed zoos to be acceptable. We have the power to change the way we live. We also have the responsibility towards all of the beings we share this world with to make sure that we do not cause any suffering. Changing the way we live will undoubtedly take time - it is something that will need to be done in every aspect of our lives in every day. We will need to be examples to our children, teach them how truly to honour all life - this can only be done if we honour life, for how else will they learn?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Day 489: After Christmas Special

Kipling might not recognize Christmas in India today. While Christians make up just 2.3% of the population, markets and stores in major cities are decorated for the holidays, hotels and restaurants run special meals, there are carolers in shopping malls, and scores of sometimes puzzling celebrations, like this 101-foot-long cake and multi-Santa event in Chandigarh, northern India: 
The Christmasification of India has its roots in Kipling and his ilk, British colonialists who left behind their educational influence, not to mention bakeries that make mince pies. But Christmas in India, and Asia in general, has undergone something of a transformation in recent decades, with countries around the region embracing the gift-buying, food, decorations, and singing—pretty much everything but the religious commemoration of the birth of Christ.
Thailand, for example, is 94% Buddhist and 5% Muslim. But many Thais have enthusiastically embraced the Christmas spirit—particularly the more materialistic elements. Despite the fact that it isn’t an official holiday, shopping malls and department stores erect towering, twinkling Christmas trees, and snowmen and candy canes are on display in many shops come late November. Many malls run special Christmas promotions, and one of the city’s major shopping centers is even open until midnight during the holiday period. - Quartz

Christmas means different things to different people: for some, it is a religious event in which they remember the life and death of Jesus. For others, it is a cultural event, celebrating one's family by coming together and giving gifts. For some, it is a nuisance due to the absolute madness that culminates in central areas in the days leading up to Christmas and the business that is lost due to everything closing on Christmas day. For some it represents the most sales their business will make in just a few short days/weeks in the year. For some it is a foreign concept that is only whispered about in their community.

Originally Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ (Christ's Mass) - but the meaning has changed a great deal for most people. These days one need not be Christian to celebrate Christmas. Christmas has actually become a massive event that impacts hugely on our economic system.

Aside from giving gifts to loved ones, many people travel, then there are all the decorations and trees that go up. All in all, people spend a fortune during Christmas time - and it seems like that is now the main focus of the celebration. It makes sense, seeing as how we equate love with spending money (and we equate spending money with making an effort, or sacrificing oneself) - so the more we spend on presents for our loved ones, the more we have shown to them that we care. Take this article, for example: a mother took out 8 different payday loans in order to buy hundreds of presents for her children. The article does not give a reason as to why she did what she did, we could assume that she is bad with money and financial planning, or that she is nuts, or that she is a desperate romantic in a way - whatever the reason, it was certainly not practical or very logical.

The more emphasis we place on the gifts we give and how much was spent on them, the less we are actually celebrating a day or showing our love - what we are actually doing is playing a comparison game of "who's present is bigger and who spent the most". Passing people in a supermarket the day before Christmas is terrifying. Most people smile and seem friendly enough, but the way that they are moving through the store indicates that they would run you over if you got in their way. Christmas has turned into a shopping frenzy, a mad rush (Black Friday anyone?) to buy whatever it is we are looking for in an attempt to make our loved ones happy and for us to "have a good time" with our family.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Day 488: Self Interest to Drive Organ Donations

More than 100,000 extra people are expected to sign up to become organ donors next year after a change to the way the public are asked to join the register.

Researchers found that people are far more likely to sign up if they are encouraged to think selfishly.

In a trial, more than one million people renewing their tax disc or registering for a driving licence online were presented with one of eight messages encouraging them to join the organ donor register. 
It was found that people were most likely to sign up if warned that they might need a transplant themselves one day.

The most successful question was: ‘If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.’ - DailyMail

It is sad to know that we are more likely to help other people (at even no cost to ourselves) if there is a possible benefit for ourselves. This has been noted in psychology as well, though maybe not quite so explicitly. In the book Social Psychology (Twelfth Edition) by Nyla R Branscombe, Robert A Baron & Donn Byrne there is an entire chapter dedicated to "Prosocial Behavior". The chapter explores motives for prosocial behavior and aside from the few people who really do experience empathy towards those in need, most of the motives are self-interested - even if they do not appear to be so at face value.

The sub categories in the chapter explore a number of hypotheses:
  • Empathy-Altruism (It feels good to help others)
  • Negative-State Relief (Sometimes, helping reduces unpleasant feelings)
  • Empathic Joy (helping as an accomplishment - ie. it is rewarding)
  • Competitive Altruism (helping others boosts the helper's own status and reputation)
  • Kin Selection Theory (helping ourselves by helping those who share our genes)
Two researchers (Latane and Darley, 1970) developed a proposal of what chain of events takes place within a person when they are faced with a situation which requires them to decide whether they will help or not. The series of decisions they proposed are as follows:
  1. Notice or fail to notice that something unusual is happening
  2. Correctly interpreting the situation as an emergency
  3. Deciding that it is your responsibility to help
  4. Deciding if you have the knowledge or skills to help
  5. Making the final decision to provide help
What they also discovered was that when there were many people witnessing a situation that required action, the more people there are the more everyone assumes that someone else will help - and so no one takes action. This has been referred to as diffusion of responsibility and accordingly the larger the number of witnesses, the less likely it is that anyone will actually help. Another discovery made by Latane and Darley (1968) was what they call pluralistic ignorance, which is the tendency of people to wait for someone else to provide a cue that there actually is an emergency out of a fear of embarrassing themselves if the situation turns out not to be an emergency.

Other factors that determine the likelihood that we will help someone include the following:
  • We are more likely to help people we like, or people who are similar to us than people we do not like or who are dissimilar to ourselves. 
  • We are more likely to help those whom we perceive to not be responsible for the situation they are in than someone who we believe is responsible for their situation. 
  • We are more likely to help if we see other people helping (including media representation).
The chapter does continue further with different considerations and theories, but I will not go into it any further within this post.

Before I conclude I must reiterate that there are people, many people, who help others simply because they would not like to be placed in that same situation. Now I must ask why it is that we have this tendency of only thinking of ourselves, even when faced with another person in great suffering? Sure, it is a part of our society as a whole, the focus of our personality development being on the self and "reaching for your dreams no matter what" - but could this be argued to be a part of our nature? My stance on the concept of human nature is that there are many things that we habitually do, including thought patterns and personalities, but anything can be changed through a consistent and disciplined approach - so our tendency of selfishness is not set in stone, we can change ourselves and start living with true empathy, which is doing unto another as we would want done unto ourselves were we in their position.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Day 487: Don Jon Reflection

So I just watched this movie, Don Jon, and it was quite an accurate reflection of life for the young adult in many parts of the world, especially westernized parts. It goes like this: Men are obsessed with sex and perfect women, and they're kind of shallow, egotistical assholes. They watch lots of porn and have warped ideas of what a woman should look like and what sex is all about. Women, on the other hand, focus on trying to match the appearance and sexuality that men think women should have so that they can find the "perfect man" who will do anything for them just like in every fairytale they've seen since they were like 2.

When a man and women do meet up and develop a relationship that extends further than pure sex (often mediocre sex), the focus of the relationship is on fulfilling each other's illusions of what the perfect partner is like. The relationship often remains shallow, because both parties are trying to manifest a fantasy, so neither of them is too interested in the reality of actually getting to know one another. The other main focus of this movie was on addiction to porn and the illusions about what sex should be like that comes with that addiction.

In all, the movie represents a very acute point that our society faces today: people are living their lives in their fantasies and basically ignoring reality. What the movie failed to do was present a clear alternative to this superficial and illusory lifestyle. The fact that it used a women whose family had recently dies to represent the movement of the main (male) character moving away from his porn addiction and into a "better" relationship in itself implies that "better relationships" can only happen when you meet someone who has suffered some loss, or has been through a very "heavy" personal experience. The movie also doesn't really give a clear sense of what sex should be like, only that sexual partners should "get lost in each other" in order to enjoy sex fully - which also is just another concept that limits sexual expression and defines within inside some relatively restricted lines.

The reality is that sex is not "magical" - it is an expression and exploration of oneself and one's partner. In reality, the woman requires far more attention (most of the time) than the man because of the slower arousal phases in place in the female body. Sex is something that requires patience and intimacy - an intimacy that is conducive to both partners allowing themselves to be vulnerable and open with each other so that they can be comfortable to express themselves in the ways that they enjoy the most.

In conclusion, although the movie looked at some relevant points in terms of our lifestyles, it did not delve very far below the superficial nature of sex and relationships, but rather made a wishy-washy picture of a relationship between 2 semi-broken people who helped each other in developing themselves/overcoming some emotional obstacle. The film also at no time challenged the misconception of all women reaching orgasm - so enforcing the idea that as long as the man reaches completion then all is well.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Day 486: Fart-Filtering Underwear

Shreddies were invented by a British industrial designer named Paul O'Leary, and the name comes from a colloquial term used for underwear that originated with the British Forces. I was told that soldiers would literally shred their underwear from marching so much.
Hence, Shreddies.
But these Shreddies are nothing like the worn and torn undies that the name suggests. Or the ones I bought from Target in 2003, which are still clinging to life.
Here, O'Leary actually worked with lingerie designers from De Montfort University's lingerie design course (where the hell was this when I was in college?) and utilized something called Zorflex, an activated carbon cloth that has traditionally been used in chemical warfare suits.
So, basically, it's like attaching a military-strength Brita to your butt. - CNN

Yup. Underwear that makes your farts not stink. Because apparently that matters - to borrow the line from the article above.

Somehow, on the top of our list of priorities, is fart underwear. Cleaning up the environment, clean energy, feeding the nations - these things may be on our list, but they are certainly not at the top.

Most people have only one priority: survival. If that is not one's priority, then one is one of the lucky ones. When I say "survival" I am not only talking about those people living under or on the poverty line, but also those people who make only enough money to maintain a very basic life and have very little savings or opportunity to change their situation. We have all, after all, learned by now that the American dream is just a dream that we see in movies and happening to a very small minority of people.

Just imagine if we were to put all the funds, attention, skills, resources and innovation into improving life on a large scale instead of into military - If wars were starved of funding, how different would life be? Imagine if we focused on ways to clean up our air quality instead of finding new and improved ways to kill people.Imagine if we cared as much about sustainable food production as we did about fashion (Imagine people watching a TV channel dedicated to improving sustainable and ethical food production as much as people watch Fashion TV, Extreme Makeover and other appearance based TV shows - OR imagine there being as many magazines on "ways to be a kinder person" as there are on fashion, beauty & health now). Imagine caring as much about developing a car that runs on air as what Miley Cyrus has been up to. Imagine caring as much about feeding the world as about going shopping on Black Friday. You kinda can't, can you?

We are so wrapped up in our own little worlds and our own survival that we do not have the compassion and foresight to spare for other things. Because we are so consumed by our own lives, we seldom stop to question whether the direction we are heading in as a collective community is actually where we want to be going. Do you like the idea of a global military spending of $1.7 trillion? Do you like the fact that half of the human population lives on the breadline or below? Do you like the fact that the future of our global food supply is looking bleak? Nevertheless, this is what is happening.

The other side of all of this is that those of us in a position to really start pushing for change seem to isolate ourselves within a set of beliefs or opinions, and basically refuse to acknowledge the validity of anything else. Sure, that belief gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, but what good is a feeling of purpose when it's not rooted in any real, tangible change?

Here are some interesting links: