E-Democracy in the 21st Century: Methods, Mediums and Media

The Internet we know today, at least technologically, has far surpassed Card's online forum. The average person has access to practically infinite information about news, history, politics and a multitude of other subjects. Not only can they read and respond to this bountiful information, but they can do so on a handheld device from anywhere in the globe (despite it is still hard to imagine an anonymous child genius conquering the world by keystrokes). Yet, the internet has doubtlessly affected modern politics—political debates and elections take place much as they always have, albeit with town criers largely having given way to hashtags. But, the Internet has not caused a truly radical change in democracy because it has not altered the fundamental ingredient of successful political deliberations: interpersonal relationships rooted in everyday experience.

Legal Cannabis: Party Hearty or By Prescription Only?

Today, in the United States, it is no longer a question of whether or not marijuana should be legalized—but rather, when and how. What sort of regulation and oversight will it have? Should we treat it like a medicine or a party favor? And if we treat it like a medicine, would availability be over-the-counter, like Tylenol, or should it only be available via prescription like Amoxicillin or Vicodin? Conversely, if we treat it like a party favor, do we regulate it like alcohol, or is it accepted as more innocuous, with health benefits like green tea?The answers to such questions rest in part with the people moving the pieces in legalization: no longer the long-haired hippies and social justice activists of yore, but men in suits and ties, discussing profit margins and negotiating production tiers. The primary driving factor behind legalization is, problematically, no longer access to a useful medicine, but access to tax revenue and market shares.

Neural Networks: Myths and Realities

Last week the AlphaGo agent defeated Lee Sedol, the world champion of Go. This news was met with much adulation, and in the Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) community in particular it was important news as Go had been long considered the next big challenge: the vast number of moves that can be taken at any one time make the ancient Chinese game among the most difficult games for an A.I. to replicate human mastery. Many believed that the methods used to beat Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997 by Deep Blue could be applied to Go. Yet, due to the increase in the number of opening moves in Go (361) compared to the meager number of opening moves in Chess (20), the same methods can not be applied. The total number of moves grows as powers of possible moves: thus, for chess to look 10 moves into the future, there are 20^20 (approximately 10^25) moves that require analysis. To do this same thing in Go requires the analysis of 10^51 moves that must be analyzed (more than 10^26 multiplied a trillion times by one trillion). To place it in a different perspective: a regular game of Go, not a specially long one, has more possibilities than exist atoms in the known universe. So, that such an analysis was successful against the world champion of Go is thus a huge step for A.I. Furthermore, recent videos by groups like Boston Dynamics have brought the hype surrounding robotics and A.I. to new, frenzied heights. However, a closer inspection of both will illuminate that much of the hype surrounding AlphaGo, and robotics in general, remains precisely that.

Exploring Innovation: Catalyzing Social Media into Community-Building

My journey began in October 2015. Interested in improving myself mentally, I was studying Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, a book suggested to me by mentors and apparently an important read for any person suffering from over-ambition. Essentialism suggests a perspective of focus routed in being intentful in your actions and deciding which tasks are most important, most difficult, and least compromisable. The least compromisable tasks are the most essential. These include sleeping, eating, exercise, and taking breaks. I was challenged to improve and commit to my morning and pre-bed routines, and to create a schedule that would take the guessing game out of when I should work, play, exercise, sleep, or eat. Eliminating the guessing game is the moral of Essentialism. When you don’t have to think about the essentials, or when they become routine, you can spend more time and energy asking other questions and focusing on completing tasks well and with clear thought. As an artist, it was important for me to both optimize my work and rest schedule, and to routinize my engagement on social media to build a stronger online presence. Incorporating activity on social media into my morning routine would make it impossible to start my day without posting at least once on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter (I mostly just used the Instagram option to share on other platforms to kill three birds with one stone.) Not all people need to routinize social media, but it did help me break through the ego-blocks that kept me from expressing myself: the more you post, the less pressure there is to have a perfect post.

Strange Times (Do Otakus Dream of Animated Sheep?)

When Nabokov said beauty plus pity, what did he mean? Was he simply noting that most great literature exhibits a depressive tilt on life—that happiness is never isolated in great art? For it is true and great artists generally accept that bright light shone on any subject must cast a long shadow. Of course, most of us already know that when considering the magnitude of raw emotions, the height of sadness felt is only proportional to the height of happiness taken away. When faced with the death of someone you know, the more happiness they gave you in life, the more sadness they will give you in death. In this sense, as well as many others, both sides are wrapped up in each other. But Nabokov is not describing a two-sided coin here. Nor even a two-essence dying-yang-like construct. No, beauty, if we can attempt to describe it, must envelop both truths, happiness and sadness. Emotions, experience, these are the raw units of beauty. They are transformed into art, Nabokov says, only through pity, through meta-cognition about these units of life that comes to the only possible conclusion: its inevitable loss. Death. This seems, at least to me, a somewhat redemptive view of the oldest human dread. Would each individual beauty be so valuable in the first place if it had no expiration? Even a novel with the most depraved outlook, or a life with the most constant suffering, can have aesthetic value, because it is true, and finite, and these things give it value in the eye of humanity’s collective consciousness.

A Big Price to Pay: The Twin Earthquakes of Nepal

The most powerful shocks had their epicenters in Gorkha and Dolkha—the 7.8 and 7.3 moment magnitude earthquakes that struck Nepal’s hilly regions in April 25th and May 12th, respectively. The most powerful and destructive earthquakes Nepal had recorded since 1934, the combined earthquakes killed nor only more than 8,000 people, but also injured 17,000 and included several billions of dollars in economic loss. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that around 5.6 million people were affected, with about 473,000 households being damaged or completely destroyed around both Kathmandu and the surrounding rural areas. A country with a stunning and ancient history that took millennia to forge was reduced to rubble in but a few moments.

A Theological Perspective On The Degeneration of Individualism

Long before the term “individualism” was coined in 1820 by the Frenchman Joseph de Maître, elements of its conception had long dominated Western thought. From politics to religion, Western societies founded an ideology in which all persons are understood as autonomous agents capable of and entitled to acting of their own accord, pursuing freely and unencumbered their own beliefs and desires. Religious leaders, philosophers, and social commentators as far back as the 15th century were laying the foundation for a particular ideology that would come to transcend geographic and chronological constraints. The benefits, and to some extent, the necessity of individualism were self-evident to thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson who postulated that, "my life is for itself.” A more contemporary female counterpart to Emerson, such as Ayn Rand, wrote that, "Every man is an independent sovereign entity who possess an inalienable right to his own like." [4] And yet, fascination with individualism has not declined throughout the centuries, as contemporary researchers like Geert Hofstede continue to describe it in even its more mundane implications and consequences: analyzing, for example, how individuals have interacted with one other in the home and the workplace over the centuries.

Stepwell at Adalaj

The Adalaj stepwell is considered by many to be the most famous, complex, and classical stepwell ever built. Its otherworldly space invites a sense of spiritual peace in its visitors while acting as a conduit toward that most necessary activity of life: accessing water. These stepwells were first dug into the ground by the ancient Mahavira people around the year 200—around the same time the Egyptians were building pyramids high into the sky. 

Why do Cities Shrink?

The Shrinking Cities International Research Network defines a shrinking city as, “a densely populated urban area with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that has faced population losses in large parts for more than two years and is undergoing economic transformations with some symptoms of structural crisis” (Wiechmann, 2008, p. 431). Research in this field has boomed over the past 15 years as the global prevalence of the phenomenon has become increasingly apparent. The research focus has shifted from concentrating predominantly on European, American and Japanese cities to include case studies from China, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Korea and others. But, the geographic distribution of the cases and the multidisciplinary nature of the topic often result in very geographic or discipline-specific analyses. Consequently, a thorough, but wide-ranging, understanding of the causes and effects of urban shrinkage is difficult to obtain. In this writing, the causes and effects of urban shrinkage are identified and classified in order to provide a baseline global understanding of the phenomenon. Furthermore, the causes and effects are situated within a larger conceptual framework to demonstrate the feedback mechanisms present in many shrinking cities. The first step to helping cities stabilize is to develop an understanding of what caused them to decline.

The Imminent Collapse of Civilization

The collapse of modern industrial civilization is imminent. Continued resource depletion, exacerbated by climate change, unrelenting population growth (7.39 billion and counting) and evidently widening income inequality (both in “developed” and “developing” countries) all set the stage for a cathartic climax—and subsequent dissolution—to our current itineration of humanity. Yet, if the Malthusian perspective is not your favorite, experts consider a global recession not a matter of if, but when. Or rather than a silent blip out of existence, a third world war—more characteristic with our grittier, go-out-with-a-bang attitude—would satisfy decades-old destruction porn fantasies that have permeated popular culture for 70 years. Regardless, we are bound for a fate not unlike the societies that have preceded us—all confirmed by a NASA-funded study published in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Ecological Economics (quoted above) that established our civilization’s imminent, irreversible collapse. Or at least, that is what poor journalism and sensationalist media would have one believe.

Do You Wanna Be Happy?

By intertwining the inquiry between seeking a state of happiness and freedom, J. Cole supposes a particular definition of what it means to be happy. He likens happiness to being unbounded by limits: neither bounded by the plights and struggles of daily life (such as pain from the past, concerns of financial security, or temptation from addiction) nor by the limits of individual desires and expressions (such as singing and writing). This contemporary rap artist is one in a line of the many—scientists, theoreticians, psychologists, philosophers, architects, spiritual leaders, and average people—who have all contemplated what it means to be happy and how to actively attain it.

It's Not Easy Bein' Green: How Capitalism is Shaping Cannabis Legalization

Think all cannabis legalization is the same?  Think again. Current regulations reflect the vast disparity in cannabis education among both lawmakers and citizens state to state, resulting in a variety of paths to obtain legal access to cannabis.  Even amidst those in favor of legalization, opinions differ on whether to treat cannabis as a pharmaceutical drug like Valium or Ritalin, an agricultural crop like wheat or corn, or as a vice like tobacco or alcohol.  This determination dictates which governmental body is tasked with regulating manufacture and sale, as well as how retailers and consumers are taxed on the end product.

Who Can Save Shrinking Cities?

Across the United States, many communities are subjected to seemingly constant misfortunes: skyrocketing unemployment, spiraling poverty cycles, barren food deserts and crippling crime rates are only a few of the challenges shackling these cities. From hollowed out northern capitals to the Midwest and beyond, as the barriers continue to mount, citizens, businesses and opportunities leave. For the most downtrodden communities, like Detroit, this has been a recurring theme for decades. But how does any city with a history of corruption, little to no fiscal flexibility and decaying infrastructure break the cycle? Without money, jobs or a solid educational system it is daunting at best and impossible at worst.

Thinking COP21: Contradiction and Controversy in the Climate Crisis

The climate controversy is rife with charges of contradiction. Student activists in the Divest Movement, aiming to get university money out of fossil-fuel extraction, are found by Harvard’s President Drew Faust to be “inconsistent”—boycotting the very companies on which the University and its students depend. Environmental economists are told by Pope Francis and the UK’s Schumacher Institute that it is a contradiction to rely on the very growth-based economic models that created the problem. And while developing countries hope for a new era of “sustainable development,” many note the contradiction between the energy-hungry symbols of development–industrial agriculture, superhighways, airports, and air-conditioners—and the imperatives of sustainability.

A Cowboy in Korea

Two weeks ago, my wife and I made a trip to Seoul, South Korea. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: first, I was there to present a paper I recently published at an international robotics conference[1].  Second, we wanted to take the opportunity to explore the culture of South Korea—and more broadly the cultural differences between the ‘East’ and the ‘West.’ I’ve heard a great number of things about Asia, but I’ve never fully satisfied with secondary sources, and prefer to learn things first hand, if possible. While we were there however, not only did I learn about South Korea, I also learned about myself.   

Vaccines: The Blind Men and an Elephant

In a well-known Indian parable, a group of blind men are walking together and come upon a strange creature in their path. Using their sense to touch, they each try to describe what they have found. The first one feels a leg and argues that the creature is like a pillar. The second feels an ear and argues it is like a hand fan. The third feels its tail and argues it is like a rope. [1] There are a few different versions of the parable, but generally the blind men argue on and on about which one is right until either a god enlightens them to the complete truth or they learn to collaborate and discover that they were all correct—the creature was simply an elephant. No blind man was wrong per say, but rather all were only partially correct about the properties of the elephant. Largely, the parable functions to highlight the manifold nature of truth, and the shortcomings of not seeing the ‘whole-picture.’ Likewise, in recent decades, there has been much careful (and some not so careful) discussion about vaccinations, but most of the debate has only centered on whether or not they are safe. Yet, perhaps we haven't yet seen the whole elephant, as it were.

Black Landscapes Matter

For the first time in my seven years of design education, I finally have the opportunity to participate in a design studio that is addressing race, socio-economic class and inequality in America—a privilege many will never have. But why? It would seem as though many in the design field ignore these issues. I do not believe it is because they do not care, I think it is because they do not know how to address them. I have studied landscape architecture and urbanism, and in my experience, we are subconsciously taught to design for the privileged. The imaginary clients always have endless amounts of money. The precedents we are shown are of world-class projects that are typically in prosperous areas or only benefit citizens of a specific income bracket. And the programs we are assigned can be incredibly trivial—like a museum for fashion. Let’s be honest: I am taught to design for white, capitalist America and I hadn’t realized this in its entirety until returning from my course field trip to St. Louis and Washington D.C. 

Blood Buildings: Safety in the Construction Industry of Nepal is No Longer an Option

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have brought with them a new ethos for construction and architecture in Nepal. Introducing concrete and steel construction has pushed architects to reflect their emotion and poetry beyond the old traditional construction techniques. Nepal’s building industry itself has also become more complex, and the increasingly diverse role of various stakeholders—from design teams to building masons—require as much management and attention as the architecture itself. However, while it could be said that construction techniques in Nepal have modernized, construction practices have not, and especially in regards to safety, this is a concern that needs to be addressed.

Aging America

This is a story about a little spitfire woman from Western New York. A die-hard quilter and lover of all things yellow, her roots come from a humble and wholesome background on a dairy farm. Her spirit and joie de vivre surpass the most energetic of Millennials—those who have the pleasure to meet her are often surprised she is 81 years old. And with an attitude as bright as her sun-colored curtains, she is someone I proudly call grandmother. But her story isn’t all sun, quilts and smiles. Jean Pearson, like so many older Americans, is affected by our collective blindness to the difficulties faced by our nation's elderly.

Catalyzing Vacant Space Through Art and Public Engagement

As a youth, upbringing in New York City consists heavily of looking for a place to just chill. Somewhere that would be safe—but not limiting. Unlike our neighbors in the suburbs, none of the local kids had access to basements or garages for people to gather.  And in places like Astoria, Queens, where sidewalk garages are relatively common, the 20 minute commute to Midtown Manhattan made renting the spaces as an extra room or highly valued parking space a more lucrative alternative than allowing groups of young people to congregate. By the mid 2000s, for instance, and average studio apartment in Astoria rented for approximately $750/month.