Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I Like About the Earth: Part 1, Rain

I like rain. It never ceases to amaze me that stuff will fall out of the sky and get things wet. Because I grew up in a desert I never saw much rain. Thus when I moved to a wetter climate I was amazed at how much rain could come down out of the sky. I could sit there and watch it for hours.

I have seen all kinds of rain. Small, light rain that is more cloud and mist than rain. Large, heavy rain that seems to be coming down in sheets or in one solid mass. I have seen rain so hard that it literally beat down plants and broke leaves. I have seen rain that has gone on for days without stopping. I have had rain come down out of a (nearly) cloudless sky.

It never ceases to amaze me that water will just come down out of the sky and do so much for the Earth. It will water the plants, fill lakes and reservoirs and make mighty rivers and small streams. It will slowly eat away at rocks and wear them down, and take them and carry them to the sea. It is truly amazing that rain comes down and gives to all who need it the water and nourishment that they need.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

North Korea: Major Test for the UN and International Law

The recent missile and nuclear tests carried out by North Korea present a major test for the efficacy and credibility of the United Nations and International Law in general. To understand why this is let us consider the situation as it now stands. For some time the international community has been working to have a peaceful resolution to the unfinished war on the Korean peninsula. But because of North Korea's push to develop nuclear weapons there is a perception that what the UN and the group of 5 nations (Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and the US) have been doing has not been working. There is still a lot of talk about renewing the negotiations and having a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but even if conflict is averted the UN and international law in general will have lost its credibility.

There are several possible outcomes to this crisis. Let us consider them:

The negotiations could either start back up, or not.

If they do they will either succeed or fail in disarming North Korea.

If the talks do not start up, then either action will be taken to disarm North Korea or no action will be taken.

Let us look at what these four possible outcomes would mean.

First, if North Korea is not disarmed either through negotiations or otherwise (the international community's inaction) then there will be perception that international law is of no effect and that any country can try to get nuclear weapons and no one will or even can stop them. This outcome should give cause for concern to countries like Russia who have to deal with countries like Georgia. If a small nation like Georgia sees that North Korea can get nuclear weapons and not suffer for it, they may look to build their own nuclear weapons. And if that is the case then what is there to stop countries like Iran, Venezuela, Egypt, Syria or Libya from building their own?

The whole purpose of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was to prevent more countries from arming themselves. If the treaty is shown to be ineffectual then many more nations will arm themselves, both for offense and defense. This does not seem to be a very pleasant prospect.

If Korea is disarmed (through negotiations or force) then there will be an understanding that international law and the UN do have power and they can enforce international treaties. The perceived strength of international law after this is accomplished will depend on the manner of the negotiations (or the force used).

Thus just as North Korea was the first major test of the UN, it may be the last major test of the UN. It passed the first time around, but if it fails this current test, there may be no further tests for the UN.

I should point out that there are possibilities that may allow for a peaceful resolution without such bleak or depressing outcomes, but a lot of that depends on some noble actions from people that up until now have not demonstrated much nobility.

Some Movies That Don't Get As Much Recognition As They Should

There are a great deal of movies out there. Some good, some bad, some somewhere in between. I have run across some movies that made me wonder what they were thinking when they made them, and others made me wonder why more people don't know about these movies. So I decided to mention a few movies that I think are very good movies but don't get as much recognition as they should.

1. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
This may seem like a rather odd pick for an excellent movie, given the fact that it that it comes from the Final Fantasy franchise more famous for the 12 Final Fantasy computer games they have made since 1987 (with more to come). For those who are saying that no computer game ever was successfully turned into a (good) movie, my response is, yes, that is still true. Despite the name Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has nothing to do with the Final Fantasy computer games. It was made (illustrated) by many people who also worked on the games, but beyond that there is no real connection.

What struck me about this movie the first time I saw it was the attention to detail. As a matter of fact, it was the first animated movie that attempted (and did a very good job) at making the characters and setting photorealistic. Some parts of the movie seem so realistic that I had a roommate once who was surprised to find out that the people were animated and not real. The technical aspects of the film speak for themselves and even years later it is still an impressive piece of work.

But perhaps what makes this movie exceptional, as opposed to merely interesting, is the story. This movie, more than any other I have seen, has all the elements of a Classic Tragedy (try the first search result after clicking the link, it should be a pdf file). To be exact it has all the elements of a Shakespearean Tragedy after the style of Hamlet. I will not give a complete analysis of the movie in terms of the elements of a classic tragedy, but I will say that it does follow very closely the concepts of tragedy that make a play like Hamlet so memorable and universal. The plot follows quite well the structure of what constitutes a tragedy as given by Aristotle in his Poetics. As a matter of fact this movie could be used as an example to teach students what Aristotle meant by a tragedy. English teachers may have a problem with this due to their immense dislike of anything remotely Sci-fi (Slaughterhouse-Five excepted).

Because of the intricacies of the story and given the fact that it was such an excellent example of a classic tragedy indicates that the story did not come about randomly, like so many movies produced today. It is unfortunate that such a good story, with exceptional special effects, gets largely ignored due to its association with the Final Fantasy computer games (and the people who do like the computer games don't like the movie because it isn't like the the games). Thus many people miss what otherwise is an exceptional movie.

Disclaimer: The movie does have sci-fi action violence. It has a PG-13 rating for a reason. I would not recommend anyone younger than about 12 watching the movie, it can be rather scary for young children.

2. Deep Impact
Almost all (about 99.8%) of the criticism I have heard about this movie goes something like this, "That movie was so lame. I mean the love story in it was terrible. And all the characters were dumb. I especially didn't like Bruce Willis/Ben Affleck/Liv Tyler etc." To which I respond "Are you thinking about Armageddon?" Deep Impact had the incredible misfortune of coming out a little less than 2 months before the epically bad Hollywood butcher job of a poor excuse for a movie, Armageddon. At the time Armageddon was billed as the big summer blockbuster and everyone went to see it (that's everyone in the Hollywood sense of everyone). The movie was so bad that it influenced people's opinion to the point that any movie from the 90's that involved an asteroid (or comet, or other space body) was immediately lumped with it and relegated to the same dustbin of movie history, the "we hope this gets forgotten" dustbin.

So whenever I happen to mention Deep Impact, the general response is negative, until the person I am talking to realizes that they are thinking about Armageddon and not Deep Impact. While the brief synopsis of both films may be very similar, they are in actuality very different. The reason why I like the movie is because it tends to present real people (or more real than most Hollywood movies). It also explores some powerful and touching themes. The science in the film is also a lot better than most films I have seen (or rather almost all films I have seen), which is impressive for Hollywood movies.

So those are just two movies that I like that I think don't get as much recognition as they should. I may post about other movies in the future that I think fall into this category.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Neighborly Inconvenience: Our Loss of Social Capital

Yes it has been a while since I've posted anything, mostly due to tests, moving and other things. But I hope to keep writing the things that I am thinking about.

The other day I received an email from the office of my apartment complex with instructions about moving and moving vans etc. in the parking lots of the apartment complex (i.e. where to park them etc.). I was interested to read the last instruction given to the tenants: "Your move should not inconvenience your neighbors in any way."

When I read that I couldn't help thinking about that statement, its implications, the questions it raises and the societal conditions that created the need to make that statement. First off, what would constitute an "inconvenience" to our neighbors? If someone stacked boxes and furniture on the sidewalk while trying to load it into a moving van would that be an inconvenience to the neighbors? Or would they have to try using the sidewalk before it became an inconvenience? What if the moving made noise and a neighbor was trying to sleep? Could the family that was moving be prevented from moving simply because someone, somewhere complained? Would that not then inconvenience the family that was moving?

In a realistic setting some common sense would be used to determine what constituted an "inconvenience", and most people would behave rationally and would not complain because they had to walk or drive around the moving van. Indeed it was not a problem until it was pointed out by the community manager. By itself the statement in the email from the community manager is not notable, memorable, or even worth writing about here, but when considered in relation to the current state of our society it found it very interesting and worth noting. Just as a single grasshopper does not make a plague, but a plague is made up of single grasshoppers, and that statement was one grasshopper in the swarm.

When thinking about that statement ("inconveniencing our neighbors") I thought of the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. In the book Putnam details the loss of Social Capital in modern America. Social capital is simply defined as "the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other["norms of reciprocity"]." Or in other words, social capital is a measure of how well connected we are, and how those connections lead us to help other people.

If we find ourselves in a society where we are actively encouraged to not do anything that might "inconvenience your neighbors in any way" then we live in a society that is actively losing its social capital. There is something to be said for being considerate to others and not imposing too much on them, but if we live with the fear or with the thought that we might "inconvenience" our neighbors by moving or by performing any of the other normal actions of life (playing with the kids, having a picnic, going to church etc.) then we are in a society that is so socially disconnected that irrational thoughts and demands, that are normally stifled by social interaction, are not only allowed but are fostered and nurtured.

The problem with social capital, just like economic capital, is that once it starts decreasing (going into a recession) a reinforcing feedback kicks in and continues to push the amount of social capital down. In a society with low or decreasing social capital there is a decreased sense of community connections and a lessening of "neighborly" feelings (i.e. a feeling of "Their stuff is in my way." instead of "Maybe we should help those people move."). This contributes to a feeling of disconnection or disinterest in the activities of our neighbors, which fosters a culture of "non-interference" which emphasizes how we "should not inconvenience [our] neighbors in any way."

Something I should point out here is that we do not typically ask favors of or "inconvenience" strangers. But those we are connected to the most we "inconvenience" the most. Thus in a community of high social capital there is less talk of "inconveniencing" our neighbors, and more of "How can we help?" These acts of social networking and service are what strengthen our families, our communities and our nation. Which is why when I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of people moving and packing a moving van I went outside to help.