Friday, May 29, 2009

News and Human Rights 2: Aung San Suu Kyi and Guantanamo Bay

I haven't finished The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide yet, and so I have to blog out of order.
The reason that I haven't finished it yet is that I spent a five day weekend seeing all of my favorite people, which includes family, friends, friends' family, family friends, Billy Joel, and Elton John.
It's pretty hard to get any work done while this sort of stuff is going on. Especially when that work is purely optional.
In short, my next entry will be a discussion of the exploration of the infinite nature of the universe as discussed within Hitchhiker, but for now I'm going to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi.
What is it with me and wrongfully imprisoned people?

Aung San Suu Kyi is supposed to be the Prime Minister of Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer to support the military government's name for the country.) Her party won the country's democratic election in 1990, but since the military government of Burma didn't want to give up power and are also, incidentally, completely insane, they put her under house arrest instead. You see, in Burma, you can imprison someone for up to five years without trial, so for 13 of the past 19 years Suu Kyi has been secluded in her home without the ability to contact her party supporters or have international visitors.
Now, two things are happening at the same time.
One is that an American man named John Yettaw decided it would be a really fantastic idea to go visit Suu Kyi, even though she is totally not allowed to have guests over at this particular point in her life. What he did, was swim across Inya Lake, on which Suu Kyi's house resides. Now, apparently this lake is pretty large, because when he arrived he was in pretty bad shape and allegedly pleaded exhaustion. And, since Suu Kyi is the Nobel Peace Prize winning champion of human rights that she is, she allowed Yettaw to stay in her house for two days before he made the return swim, at which time he was caught. Because of this, Suu Kyi was arrested, even though she was already under house arrest, and is going to be tried for breaking the terms of her house arrest. For this offense, she faces five years in Insein Prison, which I have seen called "the darkest hellhole in Burma."
Now, I don't know if you've heard much about Burma, but from what I can gather, it's a place with its fair share of hellholes.
The second thing that's happening is that Suu Kyi's health is rapidly declining and putting her into this darkest of hellholes, to which she will almost certainly go unless the government suddenly grows a heart Grinch-style, will almost certainly kill her.

Why am I telling you this? Is it so you can write a letter? Is it so you can join a facebook group? Is it so you can help and make a difference?
Nope. I'm telling you because it's the news and it's a violation of human rights.
It simply shouldn't be ignored.
And I'm also telling you because of all this business about her five year imprisonment with unlimited extensions and no trial.
"That sort of thing could never happen here," you say to yourself.
But then, oh wait, Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of men are being held without trial by the United States government in flat-out contradiction of the Constitution.
Oh yeah, that.
I want to come back to Gitmo in another entry, but for now I want to draw the connection between the military dictatorship of Burma and our own country's practices. Why? Because it makes me nervous, and it should make you nervous too.
A bill to eliminate Gitmo just lost the Senate vote at 90-6.
I've said before that I want this blog to help its readers keep things in perspective. Here's another shining example. We are not so civilized, or enlightened, or noble or peaceful or free. Our politics operate on fear (fear of terrorism at the moment, who knows what's next. Maybe communism will make a comeback) and we are still the kind of country which will contradict itself and use torture over trials.
Just keep that in mind.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

College For Free 2: The Life of a Star

The point of this blog is to tell you, if you're interested in this sort of thing, how stars are made. Intro to Stars and Galaxies was without question one of the most interesting classes I've ever taken. Some people may disagree, and I don't really understand that. For example: During the lecture on how black holes form, I saw people walking out of the room.
Like, are you serious? Haven't you been wondering your entire life exactly what black holes are and how they exist? Because I sure have.
Bottom line: If you've got more important things to do than learn how the universe works, you probably don't have anything in common with me.

Stars form out of things called Giant Molecular Clouds. These clouds are composed mostly of hydrogen, helium, and trace amounts of other elements, and if you know anything about space, you'll know that this is the composition of just about everything out there. It is probably important to mention how big these clouds are, and man are they big. Like, completely unimaginably big. They can be hundreds of light years across. To give you some scope, our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across. Hm, maybe that doesn't actually help.
Anyways, the Giant Molecular Clouds that form stars are only those that are the coldest and densest. What's interesting about this is that by "densest" I mean less dense than any vacuum that we can create on Earth, even in billion dollar NASA laboratories. And by coldest, I mean 30 Kelvin, which is probably something like -400 Fahrenheit.
This is just to give you an idea of how ridiculous space is. Now, onto the actual stars.
Basically, some sort of force will cause these Giant Molecular Clouds to collapse, maybe the pulse of a dying star, maybe a passing spaceship, it doesn't take much. The clouds collapse over a period of about a few hundred thousand years and can produce as many as a hundred or a thousand new stars as gravity begins to group the elements together. The size of the star determines how long it takes for the stars to reach their complete state, which is where they spend the majority of their lives. The big guys might take as little as 50 thousand years, the smaller stars 500 million. It all depends. For the sake of the blog, we're going to focus on a big star. Mostly because I want to talk about super novas.
All stars fuse hydrogen into helium, that's where they get their energy. Stars fuse hydrogen into helium (a process that takes four hydrogen atoms and creates one helium atom, thereby losing mass and creating energy) for about 80-90% of it's life. Hydrogen fusion stops when all the hydrogen runs out, and when all the hydrogen is gone, you go from a hydrogen core to a helium core with a hydrogen shell around it. We all know what happens to smaller stars at this point. You get a red giant then a white dwarf. Whatever. Boring.
In bigger stars, the pressure and heat is intense enough that helium can continue to produce fusion energy by fusing into carbon, the third lightest element. This is when the star becomes a supergiant. So, all the helium fuses into carbon until the helium runs out, then you have a carbon core and a helium shell. As you can see from the picture at the top of this blog, this process continues through carbon, neon, oxygen, silicon and into iron.
Now, iron is what messes everything up, because iron can't fuse without stealing energy from the outer layers of star. Because of this, the iron core rapidly expands, which is putting it sort of lightly. By this, I mean it goes from being nonexistent to one and a half times the size of our sun in about 3 days. It gets sort of complicated at this point, but basically what happens is that Electron Degeneracy Pressure (a type of pressure that only exists inside of stars) forces electrons to start sort of playing musical chairs with each other. So, now these free electrons that don't have seats begin to combine with protons, which create neutrons, which create a neutron core.
The neutron core collapses from the size of one and a half times the size of our sun to the size of Kalamazoo county in a fraction of a second. The release of gravity and potential energy results in an explosive ejection of the outer layers, or a super nova, which must be so cool to watch. I wish our sun was going to super nova.
In the cores of aged supergiants, and during super nova, rare conditions called neutron capture processes occur, in which all elements heavier than iron are created. These events last for ten minutes.
In the case of larger stars, this whole process from beginning to end probably took about 10 million years, maybe longer.

Now, on this point I have more to say. I have more to say about black holes, I have more to say about the neutron capture process, I have more to say about the fact that all, ALL, elements heavier than iron (which, if you haven't noticed, is all elements not mentioned in this blog) are created during the last ten minutes of a 10 million year process.
But I'll save all that for another time, because this blog is already too long and full of science stuff.
I hope this blog does a few things for you: one is to let you know that we are all made up of all the same elements as those present in stars and outer space, and I think that's pretty cool. Two is, I hope the next time you see a gold watch or necklace or something, remember that it originated in outer space millions of years ago. Three, keep things in perspective. You are an infinitely small dot on an infinitely small dot in the infinite blackness of the universe. Don't stress out about paying your rent, it's just silly.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

News and Human Rights 1: Troy Davis

When it comes to the case of Troy Davis, it really is turtles all the way down.

I don't really know how to begin talking about this particular blunder by the American government. I find that once I start talking about the bullshit and the unjust calloused attitude of the state and the people, I sort of ramble on and on. I guess I'll start with the facts, and one really interesting piece of information about him: He's innocent.

Troy Davis has been sitting on death row for the past 17 years for the murder of Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail outside of a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia.
Or, as I theorize, he's been sitting on death row for 17 years because he was a black man at a Burger King where an officer was shot in the South in 1992. Talk about rotten luck.
Troy Davis has never been physically linked to the crime. No blood, no DNA, no hair follicles, nothing. They didn't even find the weapon. He was convicted based on the testimony of witnesses alone. That's it, just people saying "Yeah, he did it." Except, you know, even at the time of the trial there were inconsistencies in the stories.
The real kick in the nuts is that seven of the nine people who testified against him have since recanted their testimonies. Many of these witnesses say that they were coerced by the police. One of them was actually illiterate, and was ordered by the police to sign a testimony that he could not read.
Out of the two remaining witnesses who hold to the story, only one is not suspected of the crime. Oh, that's right. Sylvester Coles, the principal alternative suspect in the case, is one of the two remaining witnesses who maintain that Troy Davis is guilty. Several of the recanted witnesses now say that it was Coles, not Davis, who committed the crime. Why didn't they originally testify against Coles? Well, some couldn't read. Some were afraid of Coles (haha, obviously, he's a murderer.) Others did suggest to the police that Coles was guilty, but the police were pretty happy with their decision to nail Troy Davis and they insisted that the original game plan be stuck to.
So to me, this all seems pretty cut and dry. In this country, we base the conviction of criminal cases on a standard of proof that is "beyond a reasonable doubt." If you ask me, Troy Davis probably shouldn't have been convicted in the first place. I would say police coercion counts as a reasonable doubt, call me crazy. Not to mention lack of physical evidence. But now the solid base of witnesses testimony that saw to this man's conviction has dwindled from nine to two (and don't forget, one of those two is probably the actual murderer.)
"So," you say to yourself, "Troy Davis has surely gotten another trial and was found not guilty for reasons of insufficient evidence, am I right?"
Of course you're not, dear reader, because I wouldn't be blogging about it if he had.
Troy Davis has been shut down by every major court system, including the Supreme Court, for a retrial. He has never, ever, had a hearing on the reliability of the witness testimony against him. He has never had a trial in which it was mentioned that seven witnesses recanted. In essence, he has never had a fair trial at all.

Troy Davis is an excellent example of one of my favorite George Carlin lines.
You have no rights, because they're not rights if someone can just take them away from you.
This is so painfully true. So it goes in Guantanamo Bay. So it goes with the Patriot Act. So it goes with Troy Davis. Rights that were stripped away for absolutely no reason, except maybe to scare the living shit out of anyone who dare cross the people who hold the power.
But the real problem isn't fear, not really. The real problem is apathy. This entire county just sort of shrugs its shoulders and murmurs agreement in the face of awful tragedy.
"People are being held without due process and tortured unconstitutionally by the US government!"
"Phones are tapped, tracking chips are being put in our IDs!"
*Shrug* "Oh well."
"A man is going to be put to death for absolutely no reason!"
*Picks nose* "He probably had it coming."

I think that recent policy has convinced this country that if someone is suspected, they are guilty. No more of that "innocent until proven guilty" dribble for us. Suspicion is conviction, that's the new slogan. If you happen to find your way onto death row, be it through police coercion of witnesses or the fact that you're black, you might as well just shut up and get what's coming to you. Listen, you wouldn't be there if you didn't deserve it. Besides, if we let one innocent man appeal, then they'll all appeal, and that would make some high ranking officials look really foolish.
What I'm really getting at is that apathy is not okay. White people are doing back flips over progressive thinking because Barack Obama is president and closing their eyes to people like Troy Davis at the same time. Well, you have to keep your eyes open when you do a backflip or you break your stupid racist neck. That's all I'm saying.
To avoid breaking your own stupid racist neck, do something positive with your life for once and try to help Troy Davis get back to whatever he was doing before he was falsely convicted and sentenced to death.
In case you don't click on the link, May 19 is Global Action Day for Troy Davis. That's Tuesday. Just keep that in mind.
Just do something.

Troy Davis Global Action Day
Write to the Georgia Governor while there is still time.
Join the Facebook Group

Monday, May 11, 2009


Allow me to explain my interest in this novel with the small paint-generated graph above.
You'll see that I began with mild interest, which was quickly peaked, and for about 150 pages I was quite intrigued.
Then you'll notice that I steadily lost interest for about 200 pages, hoping all along that things would pick back up, but that never happened.
While reading Jame Joyce's epic novel Ulysses one thing became abundantly clear:
I am not cut out to read Ulysses.
This book is borderline impossible to get through, no joke. I have an English degree, I consider myself a fairly intelligent person, I enjoy reading, I like a good challenge from time to time. But this book is something of a monster, like, I don't know, the thing from Cloverfield. That seems like a fair analogy. Mostly because once it bites you, your head explodes.
I wish I could say that I enjoy reading 800 page novels with no chapter breaks and an anonymous narrator whose stream of conscious reads like a text book at some times and the town drunk at others, but I just couldn't pull it off. I got half way through and realized there was just no way I could push through the last 400 pages.
Within the last week, I don't think I there was one instance in which I sat down to read this juggernaut and didn't fall asleep within ten pages.

THAT SAID this book did a lot of really cool things and actually was very enjoyable for the first 200 pages.
Ulysses is another name for Odysseus, though I'm not exactly sure why, and this book goes by the name it does because it is a retelling of The Odyssesy set in 1904 Ireland. As The Odyssey was taught to me, one major theme prevails above the rest, and this is the struggle to be human in very non-human environments. Essentially, in his travel home, Odysseus must resist the dangers of becoming animal and also the danger of becoming an immortal. With this in mind, it's easy read the first few hundred pages of Ulysses and get a lot out of it because the theme of life and death is dealt with heavily. The nature of life, the weight of life, the weight of death, the prospect of immortality, the animalistic nature of man, these things are all brought to the surface and examined. In fact, the thing I liked most about this book is that it seems Joyce found just about every single angle to look at life and death.
The death of a mother or father means the loss of your point of origin, the death of a child means an end to your line and you will not live forever, there is a funeral scene in which the great precious value of life is juxtaposed with everyday routine including the routine of death, birth is presented with all its poetic flowery pretenses and also with focus on the actually bloody act of labor, and the significance/insignificance of life is constantly weighed.
The stream of conscious style was also particularly effective in some cases. For example: in the section meant to resemble the sirens chapter of The Odyssey, Leopold Bloom (the protagonist) is in a bar, observing the women around him as well as the music. He goes back and forth and back and forth until, in his jumbled mind, the two become one, and the reader is presented with actual sirens in the pub.
So yes, this book did a lot of cool things, and I wish I could say that I could finish it. But alas dear blog readers, life is too short to absolutely hate what you're doing, especially when you just finished college and the thing you were looking forward to the most was to not have to read things you didn't want to.
You may call me a quitter, but I just couldn't read anymore sentences like, "Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by morals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction."
That was just ONE SENTENCE! I bet you didn't read it all, did you? Yeah, so who's the real quitter here?
I'll be sticking Ulysses back on the shelf for another time, maybe later this summer, maybe not.
The book I'm starting this week: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide. After Ulysses, I thought something hyper-entertaining would be a nice change. After that, I'm thinking I'll read some Noam Chomsky.
In any case, I'll be talking about it here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

College For Free 1: The Process of Othering

I have tried to write this blog once already, but it came off really high-school-clever and essayish, which is basically everything I'm trying to avoid in this blog. It's a fine line to walk, being informative and maintaining a relaxed tone, but that's what it's all about, so I suppose I had better get used to it.
Anyways, this is the first ever entry in the College For Free section of the blog, where I tell you the reader something interesting I learned in college. I thought that I would start the blog with something that can best be labeled as the process of othering, even though othering doesn't seem to be be a word according to blogspot's spell check. The reason I want to start with this concept is because I'll probably be coming back to it a lot. It's literally everywhere, which is why I had so much trouble writing this entry the first time. Othering is thinking of a group of your fellow human beings as "others" and not a part of "us." It seems simple, but othering is one of the most dangerous things humans do and it leads to a lot of terrible things all throughout history, up to this very day.

So, I think the best way to begin to explain the process of othering, which is a very serious problem in human history, is to talk about stormtroopers.
Stormtroopers are an excellent example of othering in the world of fiction. They are the bad guys, period. You see a stormtrooper, you kill him, no question. There are no good stormtroopers, because they're all the same. They even look exactly the same, and all they want to do is kill the good guys. They don't have a favorite food, they don't write poetry in their free time or like any good books. Of course, as we later find out, stormtroopers aren't actually people, they're clones of Jango Fett, bred for the express purpose of being the mindless army of the Republic.
Now, this is fine for the purposes of fiction. It's really easy, in an epic story such as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (where orcs take the place of stormtroopers,) to create an army of enemies who all look and act exactly the same, who are not the same species as the heroes, and who are hellbent on nothing besides killing and destruction. That's fine for movies and books because they are fiction and not reality. The problem arises when we start to let these concepts seep into our pereceptions of reality.
Take America's perception of the Middle East right now. According to much of the propaganda used over the years since 9/11, Muslims are stormtroopers. They are bred to hate America, raised from the time they're children to fire AK-47s and burn American flags. They hate our freedom, which is my favorite line from the Bush regime because it was so widely accepted and so ludicrous. Really? They hate our freedom? All of them? Because I don't think I could get five people in Kalamazoo to agree on the best football team in the league, but there are entire nations of people who all agree that freedom is bad? How could anyone hate freedom? I mean, governments hate freedom because it makes people hard to control, but other poor people DO NOT HATE FREEDOM. That is just insanity.
My point being that we are taught to think of these people like an enemy because it's easy to go kill them if they're just a bunch of white-helmet-wearing drones. That's not a problem. What's hard is killing people, because people are individuals. And individuals have mothers and sons and memories and they tell jokes and used to do cartwheels when they were little. In reality, people in Afghanistan, people in Iraq, people in Somalia, are just like you. They are not others, they are us. Just other people who, just like us, are trying to scrape out a living for themselves and find happiness. And, I might add, people in those countries certainly have to look a little harder to find it.
Granted, not all of what we are told is a lie. The Taliban exists, people do burn American flags in the Middle East, people do hate America. But, those are individual people, not indicative of the overall population. See, things are much more complicated than they are first appear. All people have every level of economic and political situation to deal with. As my former Arabic teacher said, "I've never heard of any Christian suicide-bombers, but I've never heard of any rich or educated ones either."
Now, that's international othering, thinking of people from different countries who speak different languages and believe different religions as "others." It's bullshit, but it leads to even more dangerous thinking. See, I think, once you start to dehumanize one group of people and think of them as less human because they're different from you, there's no real way to stop that thinking from spreading to every other group unlike yourself.
That's why we live in a country where homosexuals can't get married, because they're not like the collective "us." It's essentially legal bigotry, and it's based on this idea that they are not us, they're something else. That's also why poor white people swear allegiance to the Republican party, which does nothing but smite the poor and help the rich, based on the backwater bible-thumping quality of the candidates. Meanwhile, these same poor white people consider their black neighbors to be "others" because of the color of their skin. Regardless of their similarity in income and location, there are still divides between people of different backgrounds and colors based on this concept that we're different from one another.
Well, we aren't. At all. We're one of the newest species on the planet. We haven't had time to evolve any differences not skin deep. We are all exactly the same, and it's time that started sinking in. So the next time you hear about the casualties of the Iraq war or some military coup in Africa, just take a second and wonder about one of the victims. What was their favorite food? What did they want to be when they grew up?
Because they were one of us, and you've got to love all the people.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Technical Difficulties

Since my car is running this week, it was my computer's turn to crash.
Which didn't really surprise me. My computer basically performs at the level of an old man hooked to an oxygen tank on a good day anyways. But this week, things took a turn. Now it's more like an old man hooked to a tank full of mustard gas. Or a tank filled with a heavier element, like iron or something. I guess my computer thinks that it doesn't have to work now since I'm done with school.
Computer, that is just not true.
So, it's going to be in the shop for a few days, and I'll have to wait to start the blog.
(I say have to, but it's kind of more like get to, since I tried to write one yesterday and it sucked and I'm not done with my book for this week either.)
It would be a happy coincidence, if I could find a way to be happy about paying to fix my computer.
With any luck, I won't have to hit it to turn it on anymore. And maybe the touchpad will work!
I can dream, can't I?