Monday, September 29, 2014

Psychic Radio?

I have been thinking about this for a few days (although I've been aware of it for years), and this is a theory which makes some amount of sense and tries to explain how & why it happens. 

Many people have had the experience of listening to the radio and before the next song begins, somehow "knowing" what that next song would be…and be right.

A curious feature of the human brain is that we actually process sound faster than our brains process sight, despite sound being over 880,000 times slower than light. The reason is simple, sound hits our ear drums and that information is directly relayed to the portion of the brain that processes sound which happens to be right next to our ear; thus allowing us to "hear." Light on the other hand, not only has to go through our eyes, but must travel to the very back of the brain before being processed by a larger number of regions. We also rely on memories to know what it is that we are seeing which adds to the complexity of sight over hearing.

It’s my theory that this increased processing time combines with the fact that by the time we become conscious of something, the thing we are then conscious of has already happened, leading to the sensation of "prediction."

Let me explain. Once sound leaves the speakers it takes a fraction of a second to reach our ears, and then another fraction of a second for our brains to process it and for us to become aware of what it is we’re hearing. By the time this happens, new sounds are already leaving the speakers. The same can be said for sight. In essence, our conscious world is continually in the past; a state of being aware of things that, by the time we’re conscious of them, have already happened and so are in the past. 

The fact that our subconscious minds work far faster than we are aware (in some cases our brain has made decisions several seconds before we consciously "make" them), may also play into the sensation of prediction thanks to a kind of déjà vu; our brain has heard the first part of a song before we are aware of it and so when we become aware of the song we feel as though we predicted it, when in reality our brains simply processed the sound before we were consciously aware of said sound.

While the times involved are very short, I think this may be why people think they somehow "knew" the next song to come on the radio before the song begins, particularly for songs we've heard many times. As with sight, our brains are excellent at memorizing sounds and we can often recall the name or tune of a song with only a few notes which lends itself to this quick recognition process. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Looking at the World Today

As we approach the 13th anniversary of the first September 11th terrorist attack and the 2nd anniversary of the Benghazi attack, I thought it would be worth taking a brief look at eight issues facing millions around the world today.

Scottish Independence

The Scottish people have a long history of being independent. Whether it was the thousand year existence of the Kingdom of Scotland, or their struggles to maintain a separate identity after the final union of Scotland and England in 1707 and the travails of the Highland Clearances, the Scots have always sought to keep some level of independence, be it cultural or political. Since the 1850s, the "Home rule" movement tried to re-assert Scottish control over Scotland, and between the 1930s and 50s Scotland won several concessions including the moving of the Scottish Office to Edinburgh and the return of the Stone of Scone - which had been in English control for 700 years.

Then, in 1997, the Scottish devolution referendum led to the creation (or re-establishment) of the Scottish Parliament, granting Scotland a devolved government. However, the desire by many for a fully independent Scotland has only deepened over the years and on Sept. 18, 2014, the people of Scotland will have a chance to vote to either remain in the UK or to become an independent nation.

The issues facing Scotland as it pertains to independence are numerous and there remains a very large segment of the population who desires to keep the status quo, but no matter which way this new referendum swings, it is absolute proof that peaceful self-determination is possible and that the spirit of William Wallace is alive and well, even 709 years after his death. This will be one vote for the history books.

US Border crisis

The US has had a large illegal immigration problem for decades and since the 1990s the number of illegals coming into the country has outnumbered the number of legal immigrants. This has led to 11 to 15 million illegal immigrants now living in the country, which costs tens of billions each year in services, law enforcement, loss tax revenue etc.

Starting in 2008, the country extended the rights and protections given to unaccompanied children (UAC) who cross the border, and we saw an increase in the number of these children each year. Indeed, the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied children coming to the US from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased 430% between 2011 and 2013, while the number of UACs (from all of Central & S. America) entering the US rose literally 1,000% in 2014 compared to 2013. This explosion of refugees reached crisis level in 2014, when tens of thousands of refugees and illegal migrants from these countries crossed into the United States; primarily into Texas.

This has overwhelmed our immigration system and prompted President Obama to ask for $3.7 billion in emergency funds. According to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, crime rates have also surged and he ordered 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border to help stem the tide in the absence of federal assistance. Many of these children (which include teenagers) have been sent to facilities across the country, at times without the knowledge of the governors of affected states.

With little in the way of meaningful legislation or promises to enforce federal law, and with Obama announcing that he would not use executive actions (which aren't the same as an executive order) to address the issue of illegal immigrants already here, only time will tell if this crisis will get worse before it gets better.

Ebola outbreak

(Click for larger view)

Ebola is by far one of the most horrific diseases known to man. Historically it has had a death rate of around 90% and the deaths themselves can be incredibly painful and graphic. Ebola has been known since 1976 and the few outbreaks that occurred prior to the current West Africa epidemic were, thankfully, short and contained. This latest outbreak however has been anything but short and contained.

What began as a single case in Dec. 2013 in a small Guinean village has morphed into a regional epidemic with potential global ramifications. Unlike the flu or SARS, Ebola isn't an airborne disease, it can only be spread through contact with the bodily fluids of infected persons. That said, with this outbreak moving rapidly into its eleventh month and 4,030th case, like the evolution of SARS, it is possible that the virus could mutate and become more virulent. The longer any outbreak lasts, the greater likelihood of the virus hoping onto an international flight (since a person can be infected for several days before showing symptoms) and causing the worst case scenario.

Of course it would be very difficult for an Ebola outbreak to occur in the United States or Europe since our medical facilities and protocols are geared to contain such things - and are far better than anything in West Africa. Still, the risk is there for it to spread within Africa and possibly the Middle East, creating a situation that would require the full weight of global medicine to stop it. 

Presently, the outbreak is the worst in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with cases also present in Nigeria (the most populated country in Africa) and Senegal - there's also a separate outbreak happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). There have been 4,026 cases and 2,137 deaths due to the virus, a death rate of 53%. The death rate has so far been considerably lower than in previous outbreaks, but with little in the way of treatment, anyone who becomes ill is going to be in for a very rough time. Back in August, the UN estimated that upwards of 20,000 people would contract the disease, unfortunately, the infection rate has increased; meaning that estimate could well be surpassed. 

This outbreak is unlike any other in a number of ways. Only a strong and concerted effort will win the day. To quote CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, “The bottom line with Ebola is we know how to stop it: traditional public health. Find patients, isolate and care for them; find their contacts; educate people; and strictly follow infection control in hospitals. Do those things with meticulous care and Ebola goes away.”

Ukraine-Russia Conflict

Russia has a penchant for invading countries and stealing land. This is abundantly evident from their history. Their most recent conquest was Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in February of this year. Under the pretense of protecting ethnic Russians from persecution (this from the ones who committed genocide in Ukraine) the Russian military, ever so subtly (sarcasm), built up a mass of thousands of soldiers, tanks, and aircraft along the Russia-Ukraine border in Ukraine's Donbas region (the area embroiled in a regional civil war, with pro-Russian militants seeking secession). After months of troop build ups and partial withdrawals, over a thousand Russian soldiers marched into Ukraine in late August and bombed the area around Novoazovsk.

At first, Russia denied they had invaded the country, but when faced with clear satellite imagery and other evidence (like captured soldiers), they said the men had accidentally entered Ukraine. 

The proposed reason for the invasion has been to give Russia a land bridge to Crimea, since the only way to get to it via land is to go through Ukraine. To accomplish this, the Russians would need to carve out a strip of land roughly 180 miles long, and in doing so, would take away Ukraine's access to the shallow Sea of Azov. Of course official Russian territory is a mere 3 miles from the eastern edge of Crimea at the Strait of Kerch. My advice to Russia? Build a bridge instead of plunging Europe into war just to steal one! 

At the moment there is a ceasefire under the "Minsk Agreement." In part, the agreement lays out that all Russian troops are to leave the Donbas region, as well as the illegal militias, and the areas in question are to receive a greater level of autonomy. With respect to autonomy, in my mind this only pushes the eventuality of Russian annexation down the road, it won't prevent it. 

On a side note, there has been an increase in the number of Russian nuclear bombers violating the air-defense perimeter of the United States. While this isn't technically violating sovereign airspace, it's not something countries take lightly. And it's just another provocation by Russia which shows their disregard for the rule of law and the notion of a "community" of nations. 

North Korea

The situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to be a ticking time bomb, particularly due to the actions and provocations of North Korea (more properly, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea). In a continuation of its 2013 activities, North Korea has fired several rounds of short and medium range missiles, and they have announced the trial of yet another American. However, unlike Jeffery Fowle and Kenneth Bae (who are being held for being Christian missionaries), or Merrill Newman (held for being a Korean War vet and then released after "apologizing"), Matthew Miller reportedly tore up his passport at the Pyongyang Airport and shouted that he was seeking asylum in North Korea. He was arrested for "rash behavior" and will be placed on trial on Sept. 14.   

The most recent barrage of missiles came on Sept. 9, when the North fired three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. Previously, the DPRK fired missiles during Pope Francis' visit to Seoul, South Korea (which DPRK officials deny there being any relation to the two events), and there were several other tests earlier in the year. It is believed that the most recent launches were an attempt to test a new, slightly longer range tactical missile similar to the KN-2

Since coming to power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has been very provocative, with multiple missile tests, a nuclear test, and a satellite launch; not to mention the major 2013 crisis. Some of this behavior has been, no doubt, to help him consolidate power and gain legitimacy. (He has no formal military training and is still fairly young at the age of 31 - a leader in a heavily militarized society and one in which age and wisdom go hand-in-hand.) I also feel it's an attempt by North Korea to try to close the technology gap with South Korea, especially since Kim Jong-un is keenly aware of how disadvantaged his country is in every way. 

These reasons and more can add up to a potentially very dangerous young man. A man eager to prove himself, to fulfill the promises of his father and grandfather, and to retain absolute control in country whose populace is no longer as docile and obedient as it once was.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) began in 1999 as 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq'. Thanks to the completely inept leadership of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and the Syrian Civil War, ISIS began to flourish and forge its own identity outside of Al-Qaeda, with the two organizations officially splitting in 2014 (reportedly ISIS was too cruel and brutal, even to Al-Qaeda). Though it was established in Iraq, many of their fighters went to Syria and becoming battle hardened, and then burst onto the scene in Iraq as a more invigorated group.

Unlike other terrorist organizations, ISIS has a clear goal that includes the establishment of a new country - the Islamic State, also known as a caliphate. They have been able to seize large tracts of territory in both Iraq and Syria and in the process they have stolen hundreds of millions in cash, gold, and natural resources like oil. They are largely self-financed because of this (which is very unusual for terrorist groups and creates additional difficulties as we attempt to deal with them) and earn an estimated $2 million a day from selling oil on the black market. 

Beginning in June 2014, the US has been carrying out targeted airstrikes against ISIS and has sent nearly 2,000 troops into Iraq as advisers and embassy security. The UK and other countries have begun to send personnel to Iraq as well in a growing coalition against ISIS. With the murder of two American journalists, the domestic support for intervention has grown dramatically. Although President Obama's initial rhetoric toward ISIS was fairly weak and indecisive, the Obama administration has now been calling for the complete destruction of ISIS, and they have proposed that to achieve that goal, we will need a three-year military operation. 

Congress has likewise had a mixed reaction to the ISIS threat, and with mid-term elections right around the corner, it's difficult to say what, if anything, Congress will do to thwart ISIS in the short-term. One thing is very clear, the President does not have the authority to go after ISIS unilaterally as they do not yet pose an immediate threat to the American Homeland (despite the tragic deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff); he must get Congressional approval, not merely "advise" them. That said, even if ISIS were a direct threat, any conflict longer than six months would still require a Congressional vote. Though, given the self-inflicted 
emasculated state of Congress, if Obama wants to do something I'm pretty sure he'll get it - even at the expense of law (and even if the motives are well-intentioned). These things notwithstanding, it is clear that ISIS must be dealt with, and we will need all of our allies to step up to the plate, especially those in the region.

Syrian Civil War

Despite no longer being on the front page news each day, the Syrian Civil War is still raging. What began as protests in 2011 quickly turned into a devastating civil war that has cost 200,000 lives and created millions of refugees. Early on it seemed like the opposition might win, especially after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons; an action that promptly saw many Western nations recognizing the opposition Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Unfortunately, lack luster international support in terms of financing, arming, and training the Free Syrian Army helped to slow momentum. The growing divisions within the opposition itself (moderates against Islamic extremists) and renewed government offensives have led to what may be an irreversible tide change in favor of Assad's regime, 

With ISIS having a stronghold in Syria and recently helping to push the opposition out of Aleppo, a key opposition city which the anti-Assad forces have mostly held since 2013, a new dynamic may arise in which Western forces must align themselves with Assad in order to defeat ISIS. And while President Obama has said that we will work with the Free Syrian Army (and provide greater support to them), you cannot hope to destroy ISIS without Assad's help. And that may create a situation in which the opposition is further weakened because we are also, by default, helping Assad. 

If Aleppo is re-taken by Assad, he can cut the last supply lines from Turkey to the opposition. And coupled with the recent deaths of dozens of top opposition leaders in Idlib, we may yet see Assad triumph, with the United States and the West having the major headache of being forced to deal with an Assad Syria after marking out so many red lines. 

Israel-Gaza Conflict

A factory burns after rocket attack.

Israel has been in conflict with Hamas since 1987, and Israel has practically been in a constant state of war (be it against invasions or terrorists) since gaining independence in 1948. The current conflict (aka "Operation Protective Edge") against Hamas in the Gaza Strip roughly began on May 1, 2014 when Hamas started firing rockets into Israel in retaliation for "Operation Brother's Keeper." The conflict has resulted in 72 Israeli deaths (66 soldiers and 6 civilians) and 530 injuries, as well as around 2,150 Gazan's killed and 11,000 injured. 

Hamas has built up a collection of tens of thousands of rockets, including the Qassam (which cost less than $1,500 each and are easily produced), Khaibar, and Fajr rockets. The Khaibar and Fajr rockets can both reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. After enduring years of sporadic (thought at times very intense) rocket attacks, Israel developed the Iron Dome missile defense system, and during this latest conflict it has been successful in intercepting 90% of the rockets it targeted. However, Hamas also built a 
sophisticated network of tunnels to reach into Israeli territory to launch attacks, engage in smuggling, etc.

After launching several air offensives and sending in waves of soldiers to deal with the threats, the tunnels have been destroyed and there were a number of brief ceasefires (primarily for humanitarian reasons). The current ceasefire seems to be holding, but there are a number of issues placing strain on it coming from within and outside of Israel and the Palestinian areas. This uneasy momentary peace could hold, but it could easily be shattered as we have seen before. As we watch and wait there remains little real hope of a lasting peace.