Thursday, December 31, 2015

US vs. Them: The Perceived Threat of the Other

Religious wearing a "We're right" sign while holding the Bible
Beginning in our infancy, we instinctively learn to separate the self from the other. The infant notices that there is indeed a physical separation between them and their mother. With time, this separation of the self increases and crystallizes into a unique identity.

This separation is encouraged more in certain cultures like the West with its focus on individuality and reason, while Eastern culture with its collectivist outlook may prefer harmony and unity over the fragmentation of the self. Be it as it may, one can analyze what the separation consists of alongside its inherent criteria as well as its possible consequences.

Physically speaking, where does my body end and the body of the other begin? This seems to have relatively clear marked lines as I can claim that this pound of flesh is mine and is visibly separate from yours. To protect my own body I may ask the other, among other things, to give me some physical distance, which may be broken by loved ones.

Poetically speaking, we overcome or annihilate the physical separation with our lover, an act that is often portrayed as a mystical union in Sufi tradition, for instance. In that sense, the touch of the lover will connect my body with hers. It is only in love-making where physical distinctions completely blur and the body becomes one. Put differently, the body of the one merges with the other, becomes indistinguishable and creates a new unified entity.

But separation does not exist only on a physical level; there are also various types of psychological separation. This can still exist within those same aforementioned lovers where each holds onto a separate identity. But in psychological terms, we may identify with particular groups and as a result extend ourselves beyond the self. For instance, we often see those who belong to our family as part and parcel of our identity.

This circle can be extended to include friends and acquaintances and social, national and religious groups. Moreover, I may identify myself with my city, my country, my religion and even my local hockey team, that is I perceive a connection between me and all the others who belong to those groups. During hockey games, fans tend to easily set themselves apart through their clothing and paraphernalia, while in other situations people carry around pin-flags or wear crucifixes.

Groups serve a number of functions. They can be a way of escaping ourselves and our sense of loneliness. We feel as islands upon ourselves, but the extension of the self towards others helps us alleviate some of those lonely feelings. This can also be a manner of protecting ourselves both physically and psychologically. By being one within a group of people, we sense strength and support, and people are more likely to help someone they perceive as similar to them than a complete stranger.

And in these situations who can be seen as a threat here? The enemy is, in fact, the “other.” In that sense, anybody or anything that represents something other or something different from us can be perceived as a threat. For instance, imagine a family party in which there is a person who does not have any ties to your family. That person, due to his difference, may be looked upon as suspicious; although he can never fully become one with the family (unless he chooses to marry one of the other family members), he can manage to override the differences by showing everyone that he is, essentially, either similar to them (culturally, professionally etc) or that he is, despite his differences, not a threat to the status quo.

The desire to create and belong to groups has been existent since our hunting and gathering days. Basically, our cave ancestors did not want to risk their lives for others unknown to them nor did they wish to provide food to those that did not belong to the group. In each of their clans, they sought also protection from any external threats, which could come in terms of animals or other humans / groups.

It turned to be a good idea to expand the group by creating alliances. Even that is a selective process. If your group is having an alliance with mine and intermarriage would foment and fortify the link between the two, then, ipso facto, this also meant and implied that there are many other groups that are not belonging to mine; they are different to the ideas, values or any other characteristics that I cherish within my own (now extended) group.

Alliances have been an important tool in politics too. We form groups with nations and ideologies that are essentially similar or at least not seen as combative to our worldviews. For example, there are a number of contracts, contacts and organizations ranging from NATO to OPEC and even humanitarian groups, such as Unicef or Médecins sans frontières.

The alliances can be political in nature, or else ideological. In fact, the common dividing factor in the past century was based on political ideology. It was the ideals of communism pitted against those of the West; this clash is often portrayed as socialism versus capitalism. In today's world (years after the Fall of Communism), these distinctions are made based on religion mostly (although religions are used as political and propaganda tools by either party) and so broadly speaking the Middle East is thrown against the West, Islam apparently bumping heads with Christian values (while Islam itself has its own divisions and clashes between its Sunni and Shiite brands).

When we identify with one of the groups and exclude the other, we feel stronger and more accepted within our group, whereas we distrust any member of the other group. The problem is that these perceptions of the other - often based on hearsay - are almost always flawed by being too simple, one-dimensional, stereotypical, and even grotesque.

The Western idea of Muslims is highly distorted, and they are portrayed as forms of caricature, the same way (or even worse) Hollywood movies present the bad guys. This distortion goes both ways and also applies to the other group, i.e. the US being referred to as the devil incarnate.

What then happens is that there are a number of misconceptions that, in turn, give rise to outward prejudice and open violence towards any member of those groups. In Canada, the fact that wearing religious clothing could be a contentious issue among the voters can be only seen as troubling.

The West cannot pride itself on its values of liberty and acceptance by simultaneously attacking some of its own members that belong to other religions. The speeches by Donald Trump are essentially not that different from the radical hatemongers he tries to disassociate himself from, and that people on either side of the spectrum do not fully notice this is alarming, if not downright terrifying.

What can or rather needs to be done in this situation? This is, of course, harder said than done. The turmoils seem to be beyond control and terrorism threats seem to be around any corner. But to generalize and put everyone in the same sinking boat cannot be the right path.

Too see the folly of such thinking, just imagine the following analogy: it would be like claiming that the extreme Christian right speaks for all of Christianity and for all Christians across the globe; one cannot throw together and discriminate against all shades and forms of Christians from radical to liberal believer due to one marginalized and defecting (defective?) group.

This focus on religion harks back to the age of the Crusades. Yet to have this today in our modern age is inexcusable. We have at hand not only knowledge and experience, but also technology to safeguard ourselves from such fallacies.

In the past, people believed those distortions because they not only lacked education and literacy but also they did not have much actual contact with people of other faiths. Moreover, they did not have the Internet. We are at a much more advantageous position and cannot claim ignorance to our defence.

One way to dispell the myth of difference as a threat is to actively engage with others. Segregation only increases distrust and suspicion, but what people in the West should do is to actively reach out for those of different faiths. They can also start reading about Islam itself and see for themselves that this religion (like most) is being distorted and manipulated by those extreme voices.

In fact, I think we should follow Alan Watts' timeless advice in his speech on social conformity “Everyone must play” and see our lives with all its contents and structures as a game. We should stop taking ourselves, our religion, our nation, in short, our “group” so seriously and start seeing it as a form of role-playing.

In any game, you cannot force others to play with you. If they are different, they will have their own game and play by their own rules. Nor do we have to play the same games. We can still say to them that we accept them and have respect for their game, but essentially it is not ours to play; neither group ought to force the other to play something they have no wish or desire to play. That way, we can eliminate conflict and increase tolerance and acceptance.

Finally, diversity is not a threat but an opportunity and even a sign of strength. We cannot claim to be an open society and then exclude others. We should see beyond the scopes and limits of our own group and learn to understand the other and have compassion for them.

We should be flexible enough to know that our group can be extended and that there is indeed room for others; we should not permanently shut our doors but give the “other” a chance or opportunity to enter, should they wish. Chances are once we see them as fully-fleshed and feeling humans instead of grotesque and one-dimensional cardboard figures, we will see similarities between each other and not feel threatened anymore.

Monday, December 28, 2015

1965: Tariq Ali on How The Times Are A-changin'

British-Pakistani Journalist Tariq Ali with raised fist and a microphone
In the fall of this year I had the unique chance and honor to attend a talk by Tariq Ali, the renowned British-Pakistani journalist and film-maker. His talk was hosted by the Simon Fraser University in a series highlighting the revolutionary year of 1965. The main impetus was also to celebrate and raise awareness about the university that was turning fifty, having established itself in that particular groundbreaking year.

When the Simon Fraser University was founded, in those years of social and political upheaval, history was considered a controversial subject. Many were reluctant or had become hesitant to adopt a grand narrative, a lens with which to interpret historical events partly due to the eroding effects of postmodernism.

At the same time, some popular outlooks, such as the Marxist view, were fragmented, and later in shambles or re-boot mode after the Fall of the Communist party. But as Tariq Ali points out, we must see events in their context. The traditional Marxists had in the heydays a number of flaws and deficiencies, one of them being the exclusion of women and persons of color.

Notwithstanding, Marxism was the grand narrative for quite some time, and SFU in the 70s was a refuge or breeding ground for those same Marxists. Marxism in its different hues and shades is still (or perhaps even more) relevant today in a world that is seeing its paradigms shift towards globalization, the new all-embracing and overriding single narrative.

All this has occurred due to the history of capital that has, in turn, led to today's uncharted capitalism. This type of capitalism is not bound by the state anymore, but it is, on the contrary, strictly controlled and reinforced by state power. Do we really need democracy then, Ali asked the crowd of most likely different generations and hues of Marxists in attendance.

The question is, of course, rhetorical, if not downright cynical. Our current elected politicians and their respective political parties are nothing but puppets whose influence and impact are limited to unimportant or generally insignificant issues; anything they decide or vote upon will not affect or haunt the rulers at the top. Ali has written extensively on Bush and Obama, and one of his main claims is that despite our mainstream perception to the contrary there is indeed rather little (or not enough) separating the two leaders from each other.

Why are people not asking for better living conditions? For example, in the past, especially in Europe, there was a political and social ambiance that had unchangeable projects and a clear philosophy at its core. There seems to be a widespread amnesia now regarding these social topics but in the past people were not ashamed or afraid to ask for free public education and public housing.

That we see it as normal and commonplace nowadays that education will cost us money and that many people in the world who do not have money are excluded from this privilege, hence making education an effective monopoly, that is, another form of capital control, all this is something we have come to accept without doubt or hesitation.

But it does not and should not have to be this way. Another problem of the political project of globalization is the fact that these ideas and feelings of helplessness are transported and implemented into other countries changing their structure and ideology.

The media is in decline and at the same time front and centre of all of this. In the past, notably during the Vietnam war, the media was functioning as a legitimate voice, and opposition was often expressed. Astonishing and shocking images of the war were shown and transmitted over television, while the first massive demonstration took place in 1965, an unprecedented event in the history of the United States. Nowadays, mass media is to a large extent controlled by those at the top who use it as a means of forming and shaping us into the citizens they envision and to transmit messages that suit them and their monetary purposes best.

Through preambles and digressions, Ali would return to his topic and focus at hand, the year of 1965. This was the first time after the Civil War where the issue of race had become of central importance. In this veritable struggle for freedom, there was also repression against black leaders; Malcolm X was assassinated that same year.

In fact, Ali talked to Malcolm X at Oxford, and the black leader told him that he did not think they would meet again; he strongly believed they were out to kill him. Malcolm X was not exactly sure who because he had many enemies at the time. The leaders were unhappy with his path, and most likely the tone of his messages, and they were also nervous about the reforms that the black communities were seeking.

Unfortunately, these issues are still not resolved yet despite having a current president of color at the helm. There is deep racism at the core of the United States, and events like what happened at Ferguson only highlight this. Furthermore, that somebody like Donald Trump can get so much attention and coverage in the media and, what's worse, support from the population is a clear sign that something is seriously wrong with the current American consciousness.

Tariq Ali then looked at wars and foreign policy. They are a great time for removing governments, he claimed. He gave the India and Pakistan war as one of the examples. This war had supposedly occurred over the city of Kashmir, but was more about the rule of dictatorship. The Pakistani knew that were going to lose this war, but went along with this suicide mission for a possible change of government and policies.

Another focal point was Indonesia, which was seen as the biggest threat to the United States due to its Communist government. The CIA was in league and plotted with right-wing generals to carry a coup d'état. Within those weeks, 1.5 million people had died marking it as one the largest genocides in human history.Most of the killers showed little to no remorse as can be seen in the brilliant but shocking and devastating documentary The Act of Killing (2012).

All the slayings in Indonesia left a huge political vacuum and so the radical Islamists entered. They are still quite active after the events of September 11, so echoes of history never go away. History does not repeat itself, but rather has small-scale revivals.

In the past, the general consensus had been that communism and fascism are the same thing, but this is not true. Communism and fascism became prevalent particularly before the Second World War. An interesting and a conveniently overlooked fact regards Churchill who in the 1920s and 30s was himself antisemitic and supported fascist ideas. Mussolini, for instance, was seen as a good, strong and viable force to fight against the Jewish Bolsheviks. In fact, Mussollini's biography sold very well in England showing his popularity and the resonance of his ideas within the general populace.

Hitler also found support among world leaders at first and was considered an effective means to fight against communists. Curchill, for instance, gave Hitler's book Mein Kampf a good review, while in his own country Hitler was perceived as a tremendous boon in 1939.

But it comes as no surprise that Hitler was a difficult and unpredictable person to work with, to put it mildly. Soon enough he turned his guns versus the West itself. He took Europe first and then had his eyes on England. In fact, the French generally collaborated with Germany; contrary to popular belief, the French resistance was tiny. The controversial film Lacombe, Lucien (1974) by Louis Malle revealed some of those unpleasant aspects about French society in the years of the Occupation.

One of the reasons the French did not offer much resistance was, according to Ali, because antisemitism was a great force in France during those days. And if we look at Scandinavia, only the Norwegians put up a fight against the Germans, while Denmark was taken rather quickly. Sweden, on the other hand, was never occupied and worked with the Germans although they were supposed to be seen as neutral. Goebbels was given an honorary doctorate in Lundt, an event that does squash any possible claim for neutrality in this matter.

Ironically, the allies had to eventually accept help from their sworn enemies, the Russian communists. The same Russians who had been initially regarded as a security threat ended up being a strong asset against the surge of the Nazis. Shockingly, after World War II, 70% of Italy's most powerful positions and 60% of Germany's were kept by people who had a stake in those troublesome times. Many of the old nazis re-entered the field of politics through various means and parties.

Is there any hope in all of this? Ali claims that there are a number of issues that show some promise. One of them is great cinema that has come as a result of those upheavals and changes. He singled out a number of film-makers, such as Godard, in particular his revolutionary and experimental film Pierrot le Fou (1965), as well as Fellini with his criticism of consumerism, and the works of Francesco Rosi. Ali claimed that the shift in culture is a herald for better things to come.

Furthermore, he pointed out that the Occupy movement was the first sign of real awakening in the US and that we have to continue to make political demands or else we will be forgotten. History is constantly in motion, he said and it doesn't simply end although we are living in bad times. We still have hope. At the end of the talk, the speakers blasted that same uplifting message with a nasal voice singing The Times are A-changin' and I stumbled out of the hall tired and bewildered.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Kiarostami's Close-Up: Masterful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Freeze frame of Iranian film by Abbas Kiarostami
When approaching a film by the internationally acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, I am generally very cautious. His films are known for being very, very slow (imagine a snail in slow-motion) and generally uneventful in terms of plot (watching paint dry is more action-filled). 

Notwithstanding, there is a deep and profoundly affecting humanity contained within and revealed through his films that can be even life-changing. In other words, his films may be at times hard to sit through, but in the end, we are more often than not left amazed and grateful for the experience.

With this cautious but hopeful mindset, I entered his 1990 movie entitled Close-Up. I decided to watch it because it is hailed and celebrated by known film-makers around the world, including Martin Scorsese and it did make the cut as one of the 50 greatest movies of all time by Sight and Sound in 2012. 

Up to that point, my favorite film of Kiarostami had been Taste of Cherry (1997), which had been curiously panned and even hated by renowned film critic Roger Ebert on its release although later he adopted a somewhat softer tone, while one of Kiarostami's more recent (abroad) efforts Copie Conforme (2010) had been interesting but not as impressive as his Iranian films.

Yet even the latter film showed some of the director's trademarks. There are long conversations often filled with poetry taking place in a car as well as a continuous interest, if not obsession, with the blurry lines between fact and fiction, or rather cinema and fiction. The title itself Copie Conforme meaning “Certified Copy” directly references this theme; that is, the film is a copy or replicate of reality (and incidentally his latest movie is called Like Someone in Love (2012): although I have not yet seen the film, the “like” part of the title shows us that it must include the recurrent theme of reality versus appearance). 

But if cinema is a copy of real life (and love), it is at the same time more real than life in that it expresses a wide range of experiences that are often not visible to the naked eye of ordinary life.

Indeed Kiarostami's philosophy of cinema is not as far-removed but equally dense as, for example, the opera. In fact, traditional operas from their well-known Italian masters, most notably Puccini and Verdi, often serve as a magnifying glass that enlarges life and exposes the vivid and colorful emotions and passions underneath.

The opera (and Kiarostami's movies, as a rule) are rather self-conscious about these acts; the music swells and the singers / actors swoon to (over)expose human sentiment and passion, and the viewer and the composer / performers are fully aware that this is merely a stage of actors.

In Kiarostami's films, there is almost always the reminder that this is a film we are watching when he deliberately exposes himself and/or his crew. The fact that the cinematic world is artificial does not, naturally, take away from its often life-affirming message about our daily lives.

So it came as little surprise that Kiarostami would be interested in the real-life case of a so-called swindler or impostor who decided to pose as the famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and who was hence sued by the swindled family and was to be tried for his acts.

Kiarostami must have loved the fact that we have here the double of impersonator versus the real director. The reason why he was (mis)taken for the director was their physical resemblance. But why would this man do something like that? What was his motivation? Money? Fame? Or both?

To give us the backstory, Kiarostami got the real-life people play and re-enact what had happened beforehand, the most notable situations that led them to this endpoint. So while the trial is a documentary work in that it documents the conversations plus reactions and decisions of all involved, it is also a film since the director is not only present throughout with two cameras and his minimal crew, but he even directs events by directing questions to the accused and by also providing the occasional commentary to all involved in the court case.

In the meantime, the filmed and “artificial” scenes of the past are a visual representation of how everything had occurred giving us a better understanding of the proceedings, the trial itself and its subsequent verdict. Since they were shot with the original people acting as themselves, the movie is further blurring the lines between documentary and fiction.

The judge, who was asked permission to film his trial, looked at first baffled regarding the request. Why, there are more interesting and dramatic cases than this one, he insists. There are cases of homicides and other more serious crimes, and the judge believes that they would be more deserving and fitting to cinematic aspirations and exposure than a simple case of fraud, but none of those cases are of interest to the director.

Then ensues one of the most thrilling court dramas I have seen. This is not Matlock or any of the suspenseful Hollywood films nor is it the widely celebrated but in comparison much inferior A Separation (2011) by another talented Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. This is the real case of an enigmatic poor man named Sabzian who could possibly face a prison sentence for his actions involving a well-to-do family.

Slowly, we see his motivations come to light, and the way it happens, I was reminded of Sidney Lumet's brilliant examination of jury proceedings behind closed doors in his seminal 12 Angry Men (1957). In fact, the accused did not mean to cause harm nor to rob the family as they believe, but it started with a misunderstanding. We are shown a flashback, which was evidently shot after the event with the real participants, in which Sabzian is sitting in a bus reading the screenplay of Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist (1987).

The passenger beside him is a woman, in fact, the mother of the well-to-do family Ahankhah who asks him about the book, and Sabzian eventually and rather impulsively claims that he is the director himself. The woman impressed with sitting next to the famous and respected director asks him a number of questions, including why he is taking public transport, and somehow Sabzian has an appropriate answer to all her questions.

As a humble director, he is a man of the people and, in fact, he is also scouting for possible subjects and actors for his upcoming movies, Sabzian channeling his idol Makhmalbaf explains. Taking into account his physical resemblance, his eloquence and his thorough knowledge of the director's oeuvre, the woman is not only convinced of his identity, but also intrigued and says that she would like her sons to meet him. He complies and considers that he might even put them in his next film, and she gladly gives him her address.

Why did he impersonate the director? A possible answer is that he essentially and existentially identifies himself with that man's works. Sabzian claims that the movies Makhmalbaf has made are about poor and ordinary people like himself, that he had watched them various times and that he constantly saw himself and his life with its sorrows and suffering reflected there on the screen. At the same time, because of his physical resemblance, he had also in the past pretended to be the director because he was suddenly given respect, which he generally lacked in his real life.

In his day-to-day life, he saw himself as a penniless and insignificant person, but when he assumed the identity of the director people's view of him suddenly changed. What he said and thought suddenly mattered, and in fact, they even followed his instructions. At one point, he asked one of the family members to lend him some money, which he then purportedly used to buy something for his son. He adds that a famous director like Makhmalbaf, the role he was playing could not be possibly poor.

His personal life was also nothing special. He was a devout person, but his wife had divorced him. His mother is present at the hearings pleading for the good nature of his son claiming that he did not put up a fight against the divorce and fully accepted his wife's decision. He had no intention of robbing the family of their money and that he had fully intended to pay the son back the money lent to him.

The judge also seemed quite sympathetic (opposite to how Muslim clerics are often portrayed in Western media) towards the accused and his mother; he immediately dismissed the accusation of intended burglary; the family had thought that he wanted them to come out (to lure them out) and see one of “his” (meaning Makhmalbaf's) movies in order to steal all the belongings from their house. This was immediately dismissed by the judge as implausible and unfounded.

In fact, after listening to all participants, the judge put the ball back into the family's court claiming that it was up to them; if they wanted to drop the charges, he would fully comply and that in the eyes of the court, this man was misguided in his actions, but had not meant to do any harm. The family agreed and said that they would do so should the man accept his faults and apologize for his actions.

Two scenes of this movie are some of the most moving I have ever seen on the screen. One is when the director is examining Sabzian's desires of being a director; the man claims that he merely wanted somebody to tell the world the story of his life. Then Kiarostami retorted, so you want to be an actor not a director and the proof there was the fact that he was acting as a director and had done so successfully.

Yes, Sabzian said under tears. He wanted people to know of his real suffering, to expose himself the way he is inside to the world outside, and that they see him not as a swindler but as a feeling and tender man. His dream would be to have a role playing himself, the way he is deep inside. Well, claims Kiarostami, is this not exactly what you are doing right now, and a teary-eyed Sabzian suddenly realizes that he has just done so in front of the camera.

The second moment is at the end of the movie when Sabzian comes face-to-face with the real Makhmalbaf, and he cries. Makhmalbaf consoles him and gets on Sabzian's motorcycle to go to the family's house for a surprise visit. On the way, there are issues with the sound and we hear Kiarostami's concerns that we cannot at times hear their conversation. Is that scene mere acting and pretending on the part of the director to make it seem more realistic and documentary-like or was there indeed a technical problem while shooting? Considering the fact that they cannot re-shoot a documentary scene, this could be the latter case.

But Kiarostami instead gives us glimpses of their motorcycle ride with added soundtrack. Finally, they get to the door of the family who will come to meet both at the same time, the real life director and his well-meaning impostor, the real and the fake, the true and its copy.

And the film ends with a wonderful freeze frame on Sabzian's face holding a flower as a sign and gift of reconciliation. This might have also been a nod to Makhmalbaf's own The Cyclist, which also ends on a freeze frame of the main character, a film that was also highly respected by Sabzian.

Now as a final question, I would like to consider the following: Did Sabzian not put on a double act? In fact, he is good at acting and making the family believe he is the director, but did he not play with us and make us believe that he is a good and innocent man? Did he not put on a show for us the viewers? Or was his performance real, as he himself claims?

Is the movie real? If so, to what extent? Is it a documentary or is it a film? Does the trial not become a work of fiction due to the presence of the camera? Does the director not have too much say and control and hence, is he not changing the court proceedings to his own favor? Would Sabzian have been acquitted without Kiarostami's presence and interference?

One thing that is for sure is that this movie not only made me think, but it also made me rethink the work of this brilliant Iranian director. This was not only thoughtful and moving but also a thrilling and entertaining experience. No wonder it is considered one of the best movies of all time because, in reality, it fully merits its mention on that list.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Canadian War Hero Romeo Dallaire and the Fight for Social Justice

UN Mission of Rwanda
Recently, I had the honor and opportunity to attend a keynote address by retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. I had been invited by my dear colleague and filmmaker Leigh Badgley to attend the Allard Prize for International Integrity in which the following short film Allard Prize for International Integrity 2015 Finalists of hers was being showcased. More about the prize a little later, but my focus is mainly on the speech by Romeo Dallaire and its impact.

I first got a glimpse of him as he entered the stage with the prize committee all of whom were dressed in colorful academic robes. As he was sitting there, he looked somewhat stiff and slightly uncomfortable. He was about to receive his honorary degree and as the announcer introduced him, I realized that he was the Canadian officer depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda.

In Rwanda, he had disobeyed his UN orders and had followed his own ethical guidelines to ensure the safety of the African citizens and to stand up against genocide in that country; Dallaire is credited with saving the lives of more than 30,000 people. Already we see two traits here, one, a person who is not tied to blind obedience and discipline, and second, a person who is rooted in deep morality.

Dallaire did not speak immediately after receiving his honorary doctorate, but came back a little later for his keynote speech. This was a good idea because when he returned he had taken off his academic cape and wardrobe and looked much more human and comfortable as a result. 

Right after his first words, we sensed that he had a sense of humor. He had some words for his daughter who was studying at UBC for her MBA and bragged to her that he had already received his doctorate just like that.

Then, he shared his love for public speaking with us and the fact that he likes to show slides; it was the first of over 126 slides, he joked, and this was already the cut-down version. Yet he was not there to clown around or to merely entertain us; in fact, he had a lot of interesting observations to make. He shared some of his personal stories and ideas, which ought to be heeded and followed by us all, citizens, politicians, and military personnel alike.

First off, he looked at the question of humanity. Many times we overlook the humanity of others, particularly when it comes to our opponents. In our mind, whether consciously or not, we strip them bare of their humanity and see them as monsters or perpetrators of evil. 

One of the biggest and saddest issues that concerns Dallaire - and he has devoted significant time and energy towards this - is the continued use of child soldiers. This should not happen and children should not be viewed or treated as enemy soldiers. While adults may have their disagreements, children should not be dragged into these conflicts and not be sent to the front lines with weapons in their hands.

He gave us a personal example when he was in Rwanda. They were driving on a narrow strip, a no man's land marked between the Hutu and Tutsis, and they encountered a young boy of six or seven at the crossroads. They had heard of potential ambushes that used this method of distraction. The boy had a protruding belly of hunger and looked demarcated and innocent, but Dallaire and his fellow soldiers quickly got off the jeep and searched the surrounding areas for hidden attackers.

Yet they found nothing but empty huts filled with corpses. Then when they had cleared and secured the area, they returned to the road and found that the boy was missing; he was not at his previous spot. They now continued the quest for him and finally found him in a hut on the other side with what must have been his parents whose corpses were half eaten by wild animals.

So they took this boy with them and Dallaire looked him in the eye and did not see any enemy or monster but a boy like any other. These were the eyes of a troubled soul, but more importantly, those of a human being. And he was reminded of his own son of about the same age; he had left him behind in Canada before embarking on his mission. 

This boy was essentially like any other except that he had been afflicted with the greatest tragedy, while other children elsewhere - in particular fortunate places like Canada - have both rights and privileges and live a generally carefree and innocent life.

The suffering of children continued to affect him in addition to those grisly images he must have seen in times of duty and in his later missions and visits to troubled and war-torn areas. He had just returned from the refugee camps in Syria and said that there were many people living under deplorable and miserable circumstances.

There were young children and teenagers who were stuck a this place doing nothing, trying to survive at best and who were losing up to four years and counting of their lives. This time could have been filled with education, but effectively it was dead and wasted time. 

These young people would never forget those horrible and gruesome situations they had been exposed to, and they would carry around this emotional baggage with them; they would perhaps point blame at others or germinate later plans of destruction and create further suffering for others as well.

These are things we rarely fully understand or picture in our minds. We live a comfortable and sheltered life and know little of what is going on around us in other parts of the world. We hear about the extreme situations of refugees dying during their escape, but little do we think about all those who are stuck there and whose daily life consists of endless moments of suffering strung together into a bleak future.

Our political leaders miscalculated their moves because according to Dallaire, Syria has converted to a place of utter and (almost) irreversible chaos and mayhem. Military airstrikes had very little effect, if any; if the international leaders wanted to solve the issue now, it would take at least a hundred thousand foot soldiers. The leaders have waited too long to act and the whole situation has now gotten out of control.

Moreover, Dallaire praised all those who are ready to fight corruption (the main theme of the evening and symbolized through the works of those courageous nominees) and that often such change comes at the price of blood. 

He also said that the status quo is a fallacy and can only lead to stagnation. What we need to do as individuals is to ensure that there is constant change and progress at every moment of our lives. We should never stand still, but always look and move ahead to make this place a better and safer place for us all.

He even mentioned the word “revolution.” He said he could say it now that he is retired and not under the army's spell and command anymore. Such changes are indeed necessary for a better future. Some international courts decrying war crimes is a good step; that there are many exceptional people working towards international peace and towards accountability of wrongdoers is commendable, but perhaps we should also have a court that decries corruption and has international leverage to enforce issues.

Finally, corruption happens everywhere, whether we see it or not. However, it is our duty to expose corruption, to condemn it and not let those evil-doers get away with those crimes. As he was talking about social justice and personal engagement, and, in particular, the plight of children, which moved me most, I could not help thinking that my contributions on this front are generally negligible and rather insignificant in comparison. I should do more and perhaps (and hopefully) raising a little of awareness here would a first step towards that goal.

As we gave him a standing ovation and as I was thinking that he fully deserved his honorary degree (in fact, I would have given him two or more) he added two things in closure: one, that he was proud serving in the army, and two, that we should treat our vets, especially those who put themselves in danger and who suffer maiming and mental torment for us with more respect.

I cannot imagine the scenes of death and destruction that they must face in times of war, and I wonder how they can still uphold faith in humanity and the human race after witnessing such atrocities. This is perhaps why Dallaire kept repeating that things are looking not so good and that we have failed on many respects. Yet one thing is for sure, they are heroes as they risk their lives and mental health for us.

As this is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, I would also like to extend and include my thanks and admiration for all those who stand up and fight against injustice here and around the world. We saw four nominees that risked their own safety and well-being to expose corruption in their respective countries, be it in Indonesia, Russia, Angola or Kenya.

However, I believe that one must do what one deems necessary and that paying with blood or putting your and your loved ones' safety at risk ought not to be the prerequisite for everyone. One can bring about change in smaller ways by doing what one can. 

That can be blogging about such issues, raising awareness, donating for good causes as well as voting responsibly. But to all those who are willing to take the extra step with the evident risks attached to it, I raise my glass of wine to you and offer my heartfelt thanks!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Mars One Mission: One-Way Ticket to Space

Astronaut on Mars
Something fishy is going on here. There are a number of films that deal with distant space travel involving humans (Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and The Martian directed by Ridley Scott come to mind) and then there are a number of NASA space missions that constantly bring us news about the red planet, including the recent discovery of water on Mars. When there is so much focus on one thing, especially in the media, I become suspicious and look for a hidden agenda.

A possible objective could be possibly to raise and drum public support (and funding) for further NASA missions to Mars. Or else it could be a slick way to advertise for the Mars One Mission. I had not heard about this latter mission until I attended a wonderful and informative talk by one of my colleagues, Commerce instructor David Crawford.

At first, I listened incredulously as this seemed the stuff of science fiction movies and novels, but slowly I realized that this was meant for real. The overall plan was to colonize Mars, which is at the same time a running theme of various current films on the big screen. In order to colonize Mars, they needed a number of volunteer astronauts to go to space on a One-Way mission.

Why one way? Well, as travel time is both long and costly, it would save money that way. You can get to Mars, but not come back. David then showed us the criteria used to recruit people from the general population. In terms of characteristics, they were rather on the vague wishy-washy side with sought attributes like resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust, and creativity / resourcefulness.

These are very general characteristics, but it shows also the psychological profile they are targeting. In other words, ability to trust would ensure that the person is not paranoid about intentions or hidden agendas, but has a warm and accepting attitude towards others telling them what to do. Resiliency is a no-brainer as you have to survive and get by with little to no resources (hence also the addendum of creative resourcefulness).

But as I was listening to all of this and thinking that this was a mission of no return, I wondered (and worried) about the psychological profile of somebody willing to undertake such a - to put it less bluntly - suicide mission. Who would be willing to risk their life in order to try to colonize an uninhabitable strange land? What was the pay-off for the individual?

Such thinking is often counter-attacked by those who love adventure and who would like to further their causes of the so-called development or progress of humanity. They claim that such thinking would have hindered the early settlers to explore the Earth and to discover new continents. My response was, yes, but at least we were talking about the same planet, not some mysterious planet far off in space that will most likely pose a number of threats to our physical and psychological well-being.

It boggles my mind that someone in their full sanity would undertake such a mission, no matter how adventurous you may be or this trip may seem. You would probably get candidates who are generally dissatisfied with life or people who are never satisfied with what they have and want something more out of life. Anyhow, there must be some sort of lack that such a mission would fill in their personal or professional lives.

In a video of the selected astronauts, a selection process that by the way does not restrict or discriminate regarding age (basically anyone above 18 in good health was eligible to apply), there were a number of reasons given. Many candidates wanted to make a strong impact; those less modest claimed to be pioneers that advanced the human race. I nod in wonder and disbelief.

Perhaps I love our planet too much; notwithstanding, I have my personal attachment with my family here as well as friends, job and colleagues. I have traveled rather sufficiently across the globe satisfying my curiosity and sense of adventure, but I feel it more important to be grounded on this planet of ours as long as it is possible (despite the future but very tangible threats of global warming and the constant threats of devastating wars). As I have posted previously, I do not subscribe to dying or sacrificing one's life for noble ideas or goals: Is an idea worth dying for?

I do not necessarily disagree with nor am I generally opposed to space missions that will give us a better understanding of our universe and further our knowledge for educational purposes. And in theory, trips to Mars sound exciting, and I have even acquired both a mug and a cap with the Mars One logo on them. The fact that I am keeping up with the news on the issue and that I am watching the films that are churned out on the topic (and this blog post itself) should be evidence for my evident interest in the topic.

But all that aside, what would life be and look like out there? You wake up in a container or a self-sufficient biosphere bubble every day to a red wasteland, you willingly give up all your sources of entertainment (no movies, no smartphone, no computer, no Arash's World!) and you have very limited company. There is no escape, nowhere else to go or run to. What if you do not get along with your fellow travelers? You are stuck with them in deep space.

The other issue would be a lack of food and drink. Astronauts temporarily give up on these pleasures, but they are well aware that this is limited in time and scope. But what if I cannot have good food anymore, or coffee, or God forbid, an occasional glass of red wine? I doubt that vineyards or coffee plantations are ever possible on the red planet.

Will these missions render success? Let us assume they get to Mars safe and sound and manage to get by the daily mental and physical strains and pressures living in a bleak environment. What would be the next step? Sending invitations for friends and family to follow suit and come for a (one-way) visit?

Having children is still not encouraged as the environment is not ideal for the upbringing of babies. But then other questions arise around the needs of our adult colonizers. What to do in case of an emergency? Will there be a doctor on board and a police officer or a lawyer to settle disputes? Will it turn to a space-version of Lord of the Flies? Will it turn into a John Carpenter movie?

There is often a limit and downside to imagination. We may be inspired and dip our heads in the clouds, but should have our feet firmly set in the ground. This mission is the perfect fodder and stuff for the movies. Sure, a Matt Damon Martian may be able to survive, but we have to clear our heads and think straight and decide after all is said and done: Is this really a good idea?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Limits of Embodied Simulation and Piaget's Schemata

Harvard Professor Talk about Concepts
It was that time of the year again for me, time to attend the latest (10th) Quinn Memorial at UBC and to write and reflect on the issues raised. This time around we had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Susan Carey, a Harvard professor, talk about concepts. The title of the talk was “Concept Acquisition: Beyond Logical Construction and the Building Blocks Model.”

Susan Carey was introduced by UBC's Head of the Psychology department Geoff Hall who enumerated all her distinguished awards and accomplishments and summarized her view as one that gave more credit to infants' minds than Piaget had done previously. In fact, her views were also opposing a number of ideas propagated by Locke and Berkeley.

All this sounded interesting and aroused my curiosity. I have often felt that Piaget had generally underestimated the rich and resourceful mind and the mental and other capabilities of children, but it would be much better to actually hear it from someone who was an expert on the matter.

Yet as so often happens, I was disappointed at first. What she was talking about mostly had little to do with what I thought she was going to talk about. In fact, it seemed initially that she was not showing us how children are smarter than we think, but that they, in fact, deceive us!

But first thing first. Susan Carey asked us the simple but poignant question of why understanding can be at times easy and at other times hard. The general view is that we are born with a set of innate primitives. This is basically our knowledge base that can increase its content but not its processing capacity. In other words, we are operating with an 18-month processor.

According to this view, our learning cannot increase our expressive power. Put differently, we are rather limited in terms of learning and understanding new primitives since we have already acquired the necessary linguistic and semantic blueprint, a set that is somewhat set in stone. But Susan Carey disagrees with this view since new primitives can be learned.

She gave us an example of certain migrating birds. They travel over long distances and do so at night. How do they know where to go? Is it based on a set of innate primitives or do they learn and adjust? Or in that specific case, how did the birds know where to go in the dark?

One theory is that they may have used the North Star Polaris. But how did they know which one is the right one to follow as following an erroneous star could take you - or rather the birds - to the wrong place? Also, what is the North Star for us now has not always been so due to the Earth's rotational axis; in fact, about 14,000 years ago, it used to be the star called Vega (and it will become Vega again in 12,000 years or so).

This cannot be information passed on genetically from bird to bird generations. There must be some learning involved, that is the ability to create new primitives. That is when the computational primitives come in. This is not just using your processor, but also making it more powerful through the power of arithmetic.

How does this knowledge happen and does it apply to humans as well or is it simply for the birds? There are two methods we apply to learn about numbers. One of them is the Parallel Individuation Model. This means that we learn and count each number at a time, and see each number as distinct and separate from other numbers.

Yet there is also a process called the Analog Magnitude Model. In this case, we process chunks of information at once and see them more as a comprehensive set rather than as individually different or distinct items. The ability to do this changes with practice, experience, and age, but as a general rule of thumb, we can pay attention to and “hold” 3 or 4 items at a time.

Susan Carey then presented us with a bunch of dots grouped together and asked us to guess how many there were. For lower numbers where less crowding occurred, say 7 or 8 dots, we could make more confident and accurate guesses, but once there were twenty or thirty dots, there was too much noise and distortion, and we would be often wrong in our estimates.

Hence, she was explaining the acquisition of concepts via a mathematical / computational manner. I felt a bit disappointed because I had been more interested in concept-making in terms of language and their representation. Nonetheless, there were interesting bits of information that caught my immediate eye and attention. For instance, there was the surprising fact that children learn numbers at an early age, but they do not “understand” them! In other words, they can count from 1 to 10, but they do not know what that means!

She showed us some videos of experiments done with young children. When they were told to give a certain number of toys and they had awareness of that number, they would do so correctly. However, if they had no knowledge of that number, they would err. For example, a child that does not know anything beyond 3 would grab an indiscriminate amount of toys. They could still “count” up to ten, but did not notice that the number “4” corresponded with the four items in front of them, that is 4 toys put together.

This was very interesting as we often show off the knowledge of our children without awareness of the fact that their counting and these numbers had no tangible relation with the facts and abilities! One child, for example, would comment “Daddy, Mommy, and me” to talk about any items in a set of 3. This shows that she has awareness that the set of 3 corresponds with three, in this case very specific, items.

In a similar way, according to embodied simulation, this is how we learn our first language. We have an image in our head and the spoken or written word is used as an analogy; they are paired and associated with each other using a representational scheme. For example, the word One would be associated with “finger” and that would then lead to a long-term memory of that particular concept, i.e. number.

We often learn concepts and use logic to connect them with others, hence building connections within our mind. But not all learning processes as we have seen is through logic alone. We often use mathematical representations. We know that adding one more to any set increases the number and value of the set by one. 

It may take us a few years to be able to accomplish this feat, but at a certain age we understand it. This then can be expanded and applied to a number of other computations, hence growing and diversifying our capacity to learn. In other words, she has shown us that learning increases over time and is not limited to a set of primitives.

Now if you are slightly confused, you are not alone. As I am wont to do at such events, I looked to personally chat with our presenter Susan Carey for some clarifications. With my red wine in hand, I approached her at the reception and asked her about embodied simulation and Piaget. She gave me an answer that clarified my doubts and confusions.

According to her, embodied simulation is correct but a too simplistic view and account of human learning. We are capable of much more. When a person sees a dog, they do not simply associate the animal with the word “dog,” but concept building goes beyond that. The person makes a wide range of assumptions, such as the fact that there are many of its kind and that this particular animal is different from other animals, say a tiger or a squirrel.

Some of these assumptions may be wrong or mistaken, but they are still part of the inner world that the individual carries around with him or her. We can see that this is not just associating one thing with another à la Piaget, but that children at an early age already make a number of assumptions vis-à-vis what they see. This shows more activity and awareness of the human mind than was previously assumed, and it may not be necessarily limited to humans as animals seem to draw conclusions and notice connections as well.

All this left me inspired. There is more to human learning than meets the eye. I imagined the brain being capable of doing an infinite number of tasks like the endless possible moves on a limited chess board. As this was going through my head and our conversation had reached its end, she surprised me with the following question: Was I a computer scientist?

I admitted I was not. I do not think that watching Mr. Robot would make me a computer expert and my general suspicion regarding technology has always prevented me of embracing technology more than was necessary or pragmatic. 

It was also the first time I had been associated with computer science. Perhaps it was due to my question, which she deemed both relevant and appropriate, or perhaps my look (I think I was wearing a hoodie). Be it as it may, I left this talk feeling slightly more accomplished knowing that I had added to and updated my knowledge base.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hubris of Unlimited Power: Gods, Gangs, and Narcos

Image of powerful Greek God Zeus
What would it be like to have unlimited god-like power? I am not talking about being a vigilante / superhero like Batman or Superman who use their skills and powers to right the wrongs in the world. I mean to have power that exceeds the reaches of nature and to be suspended beyond the tentacles of the law and the limitations of morality; hence, to be a Zeus-like entity that often engages in a self-absorbed, shamelessly and unapologetically narcissistic show of power.

To be someone to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most tangible and vivid image that comes to mind would be the God of the Old Testament. He is filled with wrath and the power to destroy and demolish anything he so wishes, be it individuals or whole towns. He is basically ready to eliminate anything and anyone that do not please him or do not abide his bidding. There are no limits to his reach and nowhere for you to hide since he can track you down, find you and make you pay for your sins and transgressions.

The closest example that comes to this power on Earth would not be the American president but rather somebody like a ruthless dictator or a scrupulous drug pin like Pablo Escobar. The problem with the president is that his powers are limited in scope and reach. As we often see, despite having executive orders, there are many things that the president in the Oval Office cannot do, such as scrap guns or close Guantanamo.

Elected presidents are bound by laws and morality (to a certain extent at least), which may limit what they are able to say or do. They can circumvent these limitations by using doublespeak or by changing and distorting facts and events to their advantage, but few of them have the guts to downright speak their mind. Again the only ones that do not mince words and have the power to back it up are dictators. They are free to act as they please, be it for good or bad (mostly it is the second as absolute power does corrupt).

Yet somebody like Escobar and his fellow narco counterparts today are the closest we come to absolute power. I have been watching the brilliant and addictive series Narcos and it shows us an astute and cunning businessman at first who becomes a megalomaniac shamelessly abusing his power in his latter years.

One of the strongest traits of this drug lord was his extensive network. He had information, and that gave him power (I suppose the NSA is trying to copy that kind of network, but this is better left unsaid). In one of the early scenes of the Netflix series, Escobar intimidates a group of boastful military police officers at a road check by enumerating not only their names, but detailed personal events in each of their lives, such as one of their mothers being sick in a hospital or so-and-so having a beautiful wife. Having all this intimate knowledge coupled with the power that money brings and affords him, he is indeed invincible.

If anybody dared to oppose him, no matter who it was, they would feel the wrath and fire of this man. He could kidnap their children, torture their relatives, and, at the last instance, assassinate them at a whim. At the same time, he is untouchable because of a sort of unofficial and unspoken immunity nor can he be found or located, let alone arrested due to his multi-faceted connections. The mention of his name alone only induces fear.

Who would not sometimes dream of having this type of power? Not to have to run to the Godfather in times of emergencies so that they can take vengeance on our behalf for the slights and insults we suffer every now and then, but to simply be that person. Imagine to threaten the person that disgruntles you and have them shake in their boots! A simple phone call or with today's technology a simple text message can arrange the problem and seal the fate of those who malign you or treat you wrong.

In life, we see the opposite occur. We bow our heads and obey the authorities, official or otherwise. It could a teacher, school director, landlord, boss or higher-up at work, a government employee, judge, security guard or police officer. It seems that the list is never-ending and despite living in a democracy and having recourse to the law, we are quite limited in our powers.

This may be also a main reason why youth are attracted to join dangerous cults, radical groups or gangs. They feel not only validated in those cohorts, but it also gives them a (false) sense of empowerment. They feel protected by a god, for instance, who they believe will guide them through danger, or by gangsters who (supposedly) treat them not only as family, but give them also protection from authorities; the same gang leaders also give them symbols and weapons to assert their new-found identity. The young initiates see themselves as somebody stronger and better, somebody not to be messed with or else consequences will ensue upon the perpetrators.

This power that they feel with and within those radical or criminal organizations is in direct proportion to the helplessness they feel due to lack of cultural or national identity or simply due to the erosive nature of poverty. Incidentally, Escobar himself was poor in his younger years, which may explain his general sympathy for the poor, but also his unbridled ambitiousness.

His desire was to attain absolute power. This power transcends morality in a Nietzschean way since any action by this Übermensch is justified and righteous in itself. What would Nietzsche say about Escobar, I ask myself? Like the God of the Old Testament, you need to obey and never ever dare to negate anything. This embodied power is to be respected because of the fear it induces and its suffering it can create in a flash.

Yet in reality this power, no matter how extensive it may seem, comes up a little short. Escobar's dream of becoming a president of his country was cut short. With all his powers, influence and money, and despite the ramping corruption, that was one dream he could not fulfill. And despite being so powerful, he had to, for a large part of his life, live in hiding and even worry about the safety of his family members and friends.

And again, dealing with the hard currency of reality, there are always rivals and competitors who will try their best to make you tumble and fall. They may be as ruthless as you are, if not more so. And your vengeance after vengeance will lead to more and more bloodshed and misery for all. Put differently, such power and privilege comes with a bloody price tag attached to it.

But as an occasional daytime fantasy, it does fulfill some needs. We can imagine we had those powers and that we are respected in a society that pushes us around, whereas laws and regulations equally protect and stifle us. For the downtrodden and the poor or for the dreamy middle class with a little bit of control and say, all we can do is to hold onto floating pieces of dignity, that small space we call our own and not be all too fazed or impacted by the slings and arrows of the world.