Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Humanity's stupidest war, continued

For Stephen Walt, the real problem with World War I is why it started, but why it lasted for as long as it did.

He lists several reasons: the static, defensive nature of the war that prevented either side from delivering a decisive, victorious blow to the other; the powerful political position of the military within the combatant countries' governments; the fact that the participants were industrial powers with large populations that could sustain their war efforts; the fact that both sides succumbed to the 'sunk costs' fallacy ("the more each side lost, the more it had to promise to deliver once victory was achieved"); and the ever-increasing territorial ambitions of the various combatants.

Walt also points to the role of propaganda and censorship in sustaining the war in spite of its unspeakable carnage:
A negotiated settlement was never seriously attempted, in part because censorship and wartime propaganda convinced citizens on both sides that victory was just around the corner. Tight military censorship ensured that populations back home got an overly upbeat picture of how the fighting was going, with reports from the front tending to omit bad news, portray defeats as victories, and offer upbeat assessments of future progress. As Prime Minister Lloyd George told a friend in 1916, "If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know."  

Furthermore, wartime propaganda portrayed the enemy as brutal monsters guilty of vast atrocities, and these malign images of the enemy hardened as the number of dead and wounded increased. How could politicians seriously entertain negotiating peace with the vicious opponents who were busily killing off the nation's youth?  Meanwhile, governments boosted public support by portraying the war as a noble crusade; in England, for instance, thousands of copies of poems like John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" were distributed to encourage the population not to "break faith with us who die."  In this atmosphere, anyone who seriously proposed negotiating an end to the fighting -- as Lord Lansdowne in England or historian Hans Delbrück in Germany did -- was quickly denounced as a traitor who was undermining morale at home.              
Walt argues that the lessons of World War I resonate today, especially as it relates to censorship, propaganda and the demonization of the enemy:
[T]he long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the "first casualty" in war, and gleaning accurate information about how a war is going is extremely difficult. Soldiers have a natural tendency to tell superiors what the latter want to hear, commanders will spin upbeat stories to maintain popular support so that they have time to deliver a victory, and the media are easily co-opted by their own feelings of patriotism and by sophisticated media management strategies (such as "embedding").   

This problem continues to bedevil us today: just look at all the upbeat reports of progress that we heard about Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002, and look at where both countries are now. Or ask yourself whether the "war on terror" is going well or not, and whether the vast sums spent on "dirty wars" in Yemen, Somalia, South Asia, or the Middle East been worth it. Today, as in World War I, the people paying for these wars, and providing the sons and daughters to fight them, are kept mostly in the dark about whether we are winning or losing. 

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare, just as it was during the Great War. Today, Hamas offers up anti-Semitic and conspiratorial depictions of its Israeli oppressors, while Israelis increasingly embrace racist depictions of Palestinians. Sunni and Shia continue to kill each other over a doctrinal dispute dating back to the seventh century. Muslims and Hindus attack each other in India and elsewhere. If you believe you might have to kill a large number of foreigners, it helps to convince yourself that they aren't fully human. But World War I warns that treating enemies as if they are subhuman beasts only makes the conflict last longer, because politicians cannot compromise with a hated foe and many will think it is foolhardy even to try. And the longer a war lasts, the less likely it is that any of the warring parties will end up better off.

The slumberful world of ASMR videos

New York Times blogger Stephanie Fairyington describes her experiences with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), and its ever-growing presence on YouTube:
A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.
Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.
Although I haven't experienced it since I was a teenager - I must have somehow outgrown it - I am familiar with the sensation of ASMR. I remember it not so much for the initial "tingles" but rather the calm, pleasurable "trance" triggered by observing certain otherwise-mundane activities: mom diligently preparing dinner, my friends quietly talking to themselves while constructing something with Lego bricks or Tinkertoy, the schoolmate next to me cutting construction paper during art class, the Bob Ross painting show on PBS. I occasionally watch some of the videos Fairyington describes, because even if they no longer produce this enjoyable trance-like sensation for me, I still find them relaxing and of use as sleep aids.
The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whisperingtapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour.

For those not wired for A.S.M.R. — and even for those who, like me, apparently are — the videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.)
This is because different triggers work on different people. What produces effects for one person might be fingernails-on-blackboard annoying for someone else.

Jordan Pearson delves delves further into the subculture of people who create and watch ASMR roleplay videos:
ASMR as an internet phenomenon took off in 2010, when a Reddit thread asking if anyone else had ever experienced it went viral, and thousands of people realized they weren’t the only ones who'd noticed the pleasant and foreign feeling.

An internet subculture of roleplay videos meant to evoke the sensation has since taken off. Tingle-seekers—lots of them—watch videos delivering agreed-upon triggers like soft whispers in order to feel what devotees vaguely describe as "brain orgasms" or pleasant tingles, though there really isn’t any word in the English language to accurately describe the strange sensation.

Many people have started making these videos themselves—gaining hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers along the way—and often with a twist: elaborate roleplaying with a weirdly maternal bent.
“The most popular roleplay requests are the ones that involve a lot of what I call ‘personal attention.’ An example of that would be, if you go to the eye doctor, for instance, they’re going to be very close to you,” Ally Maque, an ASMR YouTube personality with over one hundred thousand subscribers told me.

These "personal attention" roleplay videos are generally created to be intimate and realistic as possible; oftentimes, binaural recording is used to enhance the experience for the viewer. Which begs the question: is there something creepy or fetishistic about watching these kinds of videos? Why are they so popular? And what exactly is ASMR, anyway?
Although not much research has been conducted on the topic, both [researcher Nitin] Ahuja and Maque told me that their favourite speculative explanation is evolutionary. A commonly floated theory, they said, is that the connection between feelings of pleasure and intimate care stems from the practice of apes picking bugs out of each other’s fur. It’s pure conjecture, like much of the discourse surrounding ASMR, but it’s a possible explanation that seems to have gained traction among those invested in the culture.

Whether or not ASMR is a physiological phenomenon or provable by science at all is somewhat irrelevant; the sheer number of video views and word-of-mouth testaments to their effectiveness speaks volumes without scientific validation. “A lot of its validity comes from the fact that a lot of people’s narratives coincide with each other,” Ahuja told me.
Indeed, ASMR is difficult to describe and even more difficult to research. But it's a real phenomenon, as my own childhood experiences with the sensation as well as the popularity of ASMR videos - roleplay and otherwise - can attest.

If you're unfamiliar with ASMR and want to see if any of these videos work for you, the best place to start is the Reddit ASMR page, where links to ASMR videos are constantly posted. ASMR Hub and Soothetube are also good places to look.

Of course, as with any internet phenomenon, ASMR videos are ripe for parody. I find this one particularly funny, if not a bit gory at the end:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Humanity's stupidest war

One hundred years ago today, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, beginning what probably was - from the standpoint of the reasons behind it, the incredible death and destruction wrought by it, and how it caused an even more devastating war only two decades later - the stupidest and most unnecessary war in the history of humanity. The Atlantic's Burt Solomon describes World War I, and what it has meant for humanity in the century since it began:
It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.
All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.
It's been said that conflicts on the scale of World Wars I and II will never happen again, due to the invention of nuclear weapons and their associated premise of mutual assured destruction. I'm not convinced, especially given the presence in today's world of nihilistic fanatics - e.g. jihadists - who don't care if they're destroyed, just as long as their enemies are annihilated as well. Aside from that, there is the primal and emotional nature of our species that sometimes tends to overwhelm our ability to reason, even in the face of unspeakable destruction. Solomon concludes:
Indeed, evidence is slim that we’ve grown wiser since the war intended to end all wars did nothing of the sort. Still, if it’s any consolation amid the tragedies and disorder of today’s world, Homo sapiens have been way stupider in the past than they are right now.
And if you haven't already seen it: if World War One was a bar fight. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A word about MH17

Commercial aviation disasters always disturb me, but I am especially horrified and haunted by the incident involving MH17, the Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people - 2/3rds of them Dutch citizens - that was shot down over Eastern Ukraine last Thursday.

Horrified, because hundreds of innocent people minding their own business on a flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur were slaughtered due to a conflict they had nothing to do with.

Haunted, because I have flown over that part of Ukraine several times before, during my travels to and from Dubai. In fact, the most direct route between IAH and DXB goes right over this area of conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Try it yourself on a globe or on Google Earth.

At the time I was making all those trips to Dubai and back, Eastern Ukraine was not embroiled in the conflict that it is today. But my flights took me over other areas of strife, such as Georgia, Transnistria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and of course, Iraq. I remember well the many times I stared out my airplane window as I flew over those areas, aware of the tension and outright violence occurring thousands of feet below but blithely assuming that those fighting would not have the wherewithal or desire to shoot down a third-party commercial airliner flying thirty-five thousand feet overhead.

As last Thursday's horror proves, however, that blithe assumption was wrong. And MH17 could have been any flight. Including, at another time or under another circumstance, my own.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims of those whose lives were claimed by this barbaric attack, and I hope that the thugs responsible for this catastrophe are one day brought to justice.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sixty days to kickoff, and an updated UH football schedule

As of today, two months remain until the 2014 University of Houston football season kicks off in its brand new stadium. The schedule has been updated since it was first released in March, with Tennessee Tech being replaced by UNLV and with some adjustments to game dates, so the Cougars' fall slate now looks like this:

     Fri Aug 29       Texas - San Antonio     Houston, TX     8:00 pm (ESPNU)
     Sat Sep 06       Grambling State           Houston, TX     7:00 pm
     Thu Sep 11      at BYU                         Provo, UT         8:00 pm (ESPN)
     Sat Sep 20       Nevada-Las Vegas       Houston, TX      TBA
     Thu Oct 02      Central Florida            Houston, TX      6:00 pm (ESPN)
     Sat Oct 11        at Memphis                 Memphis, TN    TBA
     Fri Oct 17        Temple                        Houston, TX      8:00 pm (ESPNU)
     Sat Nov 01       at USF                        Tampa, FL          TBA
     Sat Nov 08      Tulane                         Houston, TX       TBA
     Sat Nov 22      Tulsa                           Houston, TX       TBA
     Fri Nov 28       at SMU                       Dallas, TX          TBA
     Sat Dec 06      at Cincinnati                Cincinnati, OH   TBA

I'm still not too pleased with it, what with all the weak opponents and Thursday and Friday night games, but UNLV is definitely an upgrade from Tennessee Tech and I'm glad to see that, as of right now, at least four of our first five home games will be night kickoffs (so we can avoid the worst of the heat and enjoy some quality tailgating).

If I'm so inclined, I'll do my customary season preview as we get closer to kickoff. In the meantime, here's what Yardbarker has to say about the Coogs.


Who's up for a trip to Chile?

Because now you can fly there nonstop from Bush Intercontinental:
United Airlines, the U.S. airline with the most global route network, today announced the company will introduce service to Santiago, Chile, from its hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, beginning Dec. 7, 2014, subject to government approval.

Flight 847 will depart Houston daily at 9:05 p.m. and arrive in Santiago at 9:40 a.m. the next day. Return flight 846 will depart Santiago daily at 10:45 p.m. and arrive in Houston at 5:40 a.m. the following day. (All times are local.)


“Houston passengers already enjoy a high level of connectivity with Latin America,” says Chief Commercial Officer Ian Wadsworth.  “This new service strengthens those connections, allowing for even greater economic and cultural ties between the two regions.”
Santiago was the only major Latin American economic hub still not served by United from Houston (no offense to La Paz or Asunción), so this seems like a rather obvious addition to their route network. Santiago becomes the latest in a growing list of major international destinations (along with Istanbul, Beijing, Munich, Seoul, etc.) to be accessible from Houston on a non-stop flight.

In addition to the new Santiago service, United will also begin flying from Houston to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic this fall.

Also in December, Emirates will be upgrading its equipment on its Houston-Dubai route, becoming the second airline (after Lufthansa) to fly the Airbus A380 to Bush Intercontinental airport.

My little gardens, continued

They might be tiny, but my two little 4'x4' gardens have been awfully productive this past month:
It might not be readily apparent from the camera angle and the way I'm holding it, but this eggplant was huge! I'm also holding some basil and dill in my fingers behind the plant, which I used to season it when I cut it up and sauteed it.

Thanks in part to the decent rains we got over the course of June, my cherry tomato plants have gone crazy. I returned from vacation a week ago to find the plants overflowing with ripe tomatoes, which I harvested and could barely contain in this three-quart plastic bowl.

Vegetables aren't the only thing that has been growing in my garden; my dill plant did exactly as I had intended and provided a home for a couple of black swallowtail caterpillars. This is the first time I've successfully raised black swallowtails in several years.

I don't consider myself a master gardener by any means, so needless to say I am pretty pleased with myself right now.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Houston's sprawl, illustrated

Via Swamplot, a fascinating animation showing the pattern of Houston's residential development over the past seventy years:
This animation is one of several created by Ian Rees, as Swamplot explains:
Using data from the American Community Survey, Rees mapped structures in the region by the decade they were built, grading their concentration with varying shades of blue.  The result helps us visualize the decades-long march of Houston housing ever outward. 
Because the shading is based on housing density, darker tracts generally indicate areas where significant apartment, condominium and townhome development occurred. This map illustrates the explosion of that type of development on the western and southwestern side of town in the 60s and 70s, which ended up giving us urban artifacts such as the Gulfton Ghetto after the oil bust of the 80s. The emergence, starting in the 1970s, of suburban "master-planned" communities such as Friendswood, Kingwood, Cinco Ranch, The Woodlands and Clear Lake City is also perceptible. Finally, this map shows how denser redevelopment returned to areas inside the loop (especially areas west of downtown) after 1990; this trend continues today.

With the metropolitan area continuing to add people, jobs and houses at a rapid pace, and with no geographic boundaries to contain it, this sprawling development pattern is likely to continue into future decades. Barring some significant social or economic upheaval, of course.

No, guys, "we're" not pregnant.

One of these days, I'm going to make a list of words and phrases that I really hate and that I wish people would quit using. It will be a very long list.

One of the items on the list will be men who say "we're pregnant" when referring to the fact that he and his wife or girlfriend are expecting a baby. Aside from being biologically impossible, "we're pregnant" just sounds pretentious and stupid.

But don't take my word for it; here's Mila Kunis:


There is nothing wrong with men who want to show their excitement about becoming a father or who want to show their solidarity with the woman who is bearing their child. There is nothing wrong with men saying things like "we're expecting" or "we're going to have a baby." But men need to stop saying "we're pregnant." Because you're not.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Does a Coca-Cola ad campaign assist or exploit Dubai laborers?

Take three minutes to watch this recent advertisement from Coca-Cola. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Did this video make you feel all warm and fuzzy? You can admit it. What a wonderful thing for Coca-Cola to do, right?

However, the realities behind this ad campaign aren't quite so warm and fuzzy, as The New Yorker's Vauhini Vara explains:
The lives of Dubai’s migrant laborers are filled with hardship. Foreigners—including thousands of migrant workers from South Asia—make up more than eighty-eight per cent of residents of the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a commercial and cultural center, according to a report this year from Human Rights Watch. The report found that recruiters in countries like India and Pakistan often charge fees of several thousand dollars to migrant laborers to facilitate their trips to the U.A.E. and their employment once they arrive. Once workers reach their destination, employers sometimes confiscate their passports, the report said, and laborers are barred from organizing or bargaining collectively.

For some people, “Hello Happiness” was a poignant reminder of those difficult circumstances. “Almost made me cry,” one person commented on YouTube. But that view was far from universal. “No offense, but ‘Happiness’ would be working conditions that don’t cause thousands of deaths, non-exploitative contracts, fair wages,” another person wrote. The question is whether Coca-Cola is shedding light on a little-known human-rights crisis and, in its own small way, helping to alleviate the troubles of the victims of that crisis, or whether it is adding to the exploitation of migrant workers in the Middle East and Asia.
I can see both sides of the argument. On one hand, this Coca-Cola ad is giving a voice and a face to the "invisible armies" of South Asian laborers who are toiling in merciless desert heat as they build Dubai's soaring skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls. It clearly references the long days, hard work, crowded camps and low wages these men must endure, thereby eliciting compassion for their circumstances.

On the other hand, there does seem to be something unscrupulous and even cynical about this campaign, especially considering that only five of these special phone booths were made and that they were operational for only about a month while the advertisement was being produced. Afterwards, the "happiness" being provided to these laborers came to an end; the phone booths were dismantled and the laborers went back to having to pay approximately one-half of their day's wages if they wanted to make a three-minute phone call back home. Furthermore, the ad makes no reference to some of the more troubling realities of labor work in Dubai: dangerous working conditions, unethical recruiters and contractors, the inability to collectively bargain. Vara continues:
I sent links to the ads to Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied labor conditions in Dubai. I was interested in his take on the questions of appropriateness and ethics that some viewers had raised. The videos, he said, were “odious.” For one thing, he said, Coke is not only using these low-income workers to advertise its product, it is also requiring them to buy soft drinks themselves—at nearly a tenth of their typical daily wages, he pointed out—to use the special phone booth. On top of that, he feels that the ads normalize and even glorify the hardship faced by migrant workers—at least some of whom may be working against their will. “If this was two hundred years ago, would it be appropriate for Coke to do adverts in the plantations of the Deep South, showing slaves holding cans of Coke?” he asked. “It is a normalization of a system of structural violence, of a state-sanctioned trafficking system.”
The comparison to slavery is a bit overwrought, as I've said before: these workers came to Dubai voluntarily, to earn wages that, while comparatively small, are simply not currently available in places like Sri Lanka, Kerala or Bangladesh. Yes, some of them might have been lured by underhanded recruiters, and yes, some of them might be facing unacceptable working conditions, but it's not quite the same as being captured, brought to Dubai in chains and auctioned off to big developers like Nakheel or Emaar.

That being said, I do find the ad somewhat creepy. The thing that bothers me the most is not that laborers were used in its making, or that they were required to buy a Coca-Cola product if they wanted to use the telephone booths, but that only five of these kiosks were built and that they were only operational for a month. That just seems cruel. Why not build more of them so more laborers can access them, or leave them operational for a longer period of time, if not permanently? Surely that's something that a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Coca-Cola could afford to do in the name of creating long-term goodwill as well as brand loyalty in the developing world.

"Happiness," indeed.