Monday, March 29, 2010

This morning while discussing the Moscow metro bombing, my World Issues teacher asked me—since I’m Russian—if I’d be able to give an overview of the ongoing Russo-Chechen conflict that has resulted in several terrorist attacks in the past decade. My first reaction was surprise that he’d assume my knowledge of the situation based simply on my nationality. My next reaction was the realization and embarrassment that I knew next to nothing about the conflict, despite having just written an essay for that same class on Soviet influence. (In my defense, I focused mostly on Georgia for the essay.)

When people picture Russia I guess this see this sort of Second World, rugged, half-civilized, half-corrupted country with Vodka fountains, cigarette vending machines, haggard old men and beautiful women. The reality is that Russia’s major cities, like Moscow, are not that different than New York City, or Toronto, or any other major North American metropolis. My last time in Moscow we stayed at the Marriot hotel, and out of the few restaurants we ate at, one was a Texan grill, and another was a KFC. Almost everyone speaks English. It is not uncommon to see a Peugeot or any other glorified European vehicle. And while in the West famous brands like Mercedes stick to “luxury” cars, in Russia and Europe they don’t hesitate to also design vans or buses. The differences begin to arise when you leave Moscow in your rented car and travel out to the boonies. In Russia, each city or town has a number assigned to it which appears on cars’ license plates, so those infamous Russian cops, always looking for a buck from a bribe, can tell your car is from Moscow, and by the looks of it is rented, which means your probably have money, which means they have 30 seconds to think up an excuse to pull you over and get it from you.

There have been a few situations where the Family Guy style stereotypes of Russian life have played themselves out in front of my own eyes. One was when we were driving towards Moscow through country roads, and to the side of the highway, saw an abandoned rusted tank sitting in a muddy field. Another situation I didn’t actually see because I was looking away, but my family has reiterated for me enough times that I have engraved it into my memory by sheer will and desire to have seen it. Across the street from out hotel was a fancy, upper class, restaurant and lounge, and while I wasn’t looking, out of the doors came a security guard with an automatic machine gun, followed by a couple dressed in evening clothes. They got in the car, and their “escort”, who by my family’s given description, looked more like S.W.A.T. team combatant, shut their door for them and subsequently got in on the other side himself.

The metro bombing now adds to the international fear of the subway. I remember when we visited my grandparents in Connecticut and drove with them to New York City, they refused to ride the train. If only I was still in contact with them to get their opinion on “America’s Worst Mom” Lenore Skenazy, who let her nine year old son ride NYC’s subway alone. I am earnestly surprised, that with today’s extreme daily risk-taking, from smoking to flying, anyone can be deterred from taking the train as transportation. Of the 7,000 people that ride the subway in Moscow everyday, the second largest subway system next to Tokyo, 38 died this morning, in an attack that is now getting blamed on al-Qaeda as well. What’s eerie and a shock for me is hearing names of places, such as Lubyanka station or Gorky Park—places that I until now associated with summer vacations and family photos—being talked bout in terms of casualties and damage. A boycott of the subway by Russians, or of airplanes by Americans, would be a terrorist victory indeed, for then they’d have truly negated our mobile freedom. Yes, there are risks in taking the train, or in flying, or in driving a car, but, in the words of Don Draper in Mad Men’s first episode, “You still have to get where you’re going.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Faster Transition

Enlightenment era philosopher Marquis de Condorcet envisioned the history of the world divided into ten stages of continuous progress, the last stage being utopia. This belief was upheld until the early decades of the 20th century, when it was crumpled by the disaster of the Great War (Schlesinger, 1997). Condorcet’s idea correlates with Clinton’s superimposition of democracy over dictatorship agreeably, because both are based on the principle that anything good and just will be triumphant and desired, by “universal hunger for liberty” (Gerard, 2005). The switch from dictatorships to democracies in developing countries is a constant one, making democracy an achievable goal, and insuring its existence and defense for future generations. How then, are the momentary lapses in democracy, such as war, depression, and communism of the 20th century to be explained? In the words of Patrick Swayze in 1989’s Road House, “It’ll get worse before it gets better.”

History today moves increasingly fast, accelerating in its sequence of events at a rate than politicians during the 1600’s—the revival of modern democracy—could never predict (Levinson, 2006). Schlesinger’s comparison of the Industrial to the Computer Age is an apt example of such progress; however, the transition of speed can be applied to governments too. Levinson gives an ample timeline of the transition from monarchal to democratic ideals during the Enlightenment period. In France, it took nearly two centuries of philosophical dispute to overthrow a millennia old monarchy in French Revolution—only then to result in an empire. Nowadays, dictatorships, democracies, military juntas, and everything in between, alternate in some nations as fluidly as four-year US presidential elections. What signifies the triumph of democracy is that most of these countries have lately been landing on the democratic side of the coin toss.

In Argentina, the government made the switch from military to civilian rule with the first democratic election of Raul Alfonsin in 1983. South Korea, too, abandoned its war-torn dictatorial past with its first civilian president in 1992. Algeria and Benin have both instated themselves as emerging democracies in the 90’s and early 00’s with the allowance of opposition parties and multi-party democratic elections. Even South Africa, a nation deemed as a lost cause due to its ruthless hierarchal rule, elected Nelson Mandela as its first democratic president in 1994.

Schlesinger’s argument is that these countries are young developing democracies, easily swayed and with not enough years of democracy to be considered substantial democratic converts; unlike the century old democratic origins of the US. But when the rapid approach of history today is compared to the slow continuance of the 1700’s when the US gained independence, today’s emerging democracies are gaining liberty faster than their dominant predecessors. They’re accomplishing in a few years what took some nations lifetimes; what took the US decades to institute, or for France, centuries.

Many nations will achieve democracy in the coming century—some on their own, and some with foreign aid. Many will lose it and be setback. This relapse is an important step in the recovery process—as the first democratic seeds have already been planted to later be grown. Tony Blair’s proposal that “democracy is hard to bring into countries that have never had it before” is true, but that once first bout of democratic rule, no matter how quickly halted, is a first step. Amassed, these nations show a collective support for continuation of democratic governance.

Gerard, Alexander. "Making Democracy Stick." Hoover Institute. 2005.

Levinson, Mark. "Democracy Here Is Not Necessarily Democracy There." International Society of General Semantics. 2006.

Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. "Has Democracy a Future?" Council of Foreign Relations. 1997.

“Faster, Higher, Stronger”: Reassessing the Olympic Motto


What does it mean, for a nation, to host the Olympic Games? Is it competitive edge, or national pride that drives countries to host? Is it the chance to give back to the world, or the freedom to earn from it that compels politicians to place their bids? While torch-bearers line up, coaches get interviewed, and athletes train to ski, skate, and luge their way through the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, provincial leaders and finance critics stay busy predicting the revenue the event will bring during the season. Thus it seems the expectation of monetary proceeds is regarded higher than the expectation for medals. Is Olympic success then, determined by honor, or measured by profit?

As far as profit goes, Vancouver need not look further than Salt Lake City—the host of the 2002 Winter Games—to catch a glimpse of their coming economic boost. Utah’s Life in the Valley magazine claims $4.8 billion in sales, $1.5 billion in earning for workers, and 220 thousand visitors in Salt Lake City as a result of the Olympics. In several recent articles by Utah’s KSL news station, residents mentioned the state is still in an economic haven eight years after hosting the Games. Not only does it earn revenue for its own Olympic exploits, but gets a share in the Vancouver Games too, as companies use Salt Lake’s photogenic venues and snowy landscapes to shoot their own Olympic commercials to air in February. Already predictions are in on Vancouver, which expects to outperform Utah with twice as many visitors. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Vancouver is projected to be number one in economic growth in 2010, with a forecasted 4.5% increase. The “Your B.C. Government” site, in accordance, boasts a $4 billion sum of economic activity brought on by the Games. It seems so far that these aforementioned statistics—along with the Olympics’ costs, and the inconveniencing of Vancouver residents due to constant construction road-blocks and traffic detours—have been making more headlines than the sports themselves. I’m no athlete, but when the focus is so tragically shifted from its main point, one has to wonder what role sports really play in the Olympics.

Lesser known sports the likes of lugeing, bobsledding, and the biathlon attract little attention in the Olympic off-season, making them existent almost solely for the delectation of the athletes. A tripartite diffidence has formed between the athletes, the public, and the government. The athlete, mechanical and precise, achieves victory in his sport regardless of viewers or profits. The public watches in a patriotic daze, caring little for the sport, but cheering earnestly for medals. The government, in the meanwhile, cashes in on the efforts and fervor of both.

The Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”—in reference the expected athleticism of the event—has instead turned into an economic standard of “faster” spending, “higher” payout, and “stronger” market. One must not forget that we live in a world where the half-time show gets more coverage than the game, where commercials during the Super Bowl are reviewed more than plays, and where red-carpet fashions outshine cinematic performance. It is no wonder then, that like music on the radio, or dramas on television, sports have become filler in between commercials. Importance is placed not on the features, but the numbers they earn. We get to enjoy a competitive show, and the athletes get their medals, neither of us aware that we’re simply pawns in the biggest quadrennial pissing contest of the world; in which the purpose is to outperform the former in medals as well as in finance. The Olympic creed, after all, as coined by Pierre de Coubertin, reads: “the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.” And in taking part, apparently, reap all the earnings you can while the chance exists.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Paradox of Fiction (a)

"a) We often have emotions for fictional characters and situations know to be
purely fictional.
b) emotions for objects logically presuppose beliefs in
the existence of those objects.
c) We do not harbor any beliefs in the
existence of objects which we know to be fictional"

The emotions we feel for things are not rooted in the objects themselves, but rather in the "idea" behind those objects. Take a child with a favorite toy, for example: the child feels attachment not to the material of the toy itself, but to the idea of joy and happiness that the toy brings; maybe of the memory of whoever gave that toy to them.

Therefore the idea of emotionally bonding with fiction seems even more rational than with an object. Fiction, unlike a toy, is immaterial: it cannot be seen, held, or felt. Only the "ideas" of it exist. Therefore by bonding with fiction we break the necessity of a buffer between us and the idea. We attach ourselves straight to the “ideas” fiction presents, rather than an object we use as a mediator.

"Concerning the Paradox of Fiction"

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Found Art

Towards the end of the Second World War, an America soldier by the name of John Pistone broke into Adolf Hitler’s house in the Bavarian Alps, along with his accompanying platoon. He took for himself a souvenir, pilfered from a nearby desk or bookshelf. This story has surfaced on various home pages’ news sections across the internet, each with a concluding emphasis on the importance of the souvenir’s return to Germany.

Pistone’s post-war prize—not only a symbol of Hitler’s defeat, but also a personal trophy of glory, self-awarded for making it, for having been therewas a photo album, which inside it contained a collection of photographed paintings Hitler wanted for Nazi Germany’s new institution devoted to the arts: the “Fuhrermusuem”. Why shouldn’t he have stolen it? I’d take inventory on the man’s house had I been there, having suffered his atrocities.

It didn’t matter what was in the book (it might as well have been something as universal as the Odyssey), but where the book was found. It’s not every day you stumble into a surrendering dictator’s abode; and it’s even a rarer occasion to take home with you, back overseas, a little hard-bound artistic collage of Nazi-coveted artwork. This soldier, just happy to be alive, to have made through hell, would have been just as content returning home to his wife and kids empty handed to revel in the successful years of post-war glory. But his stolen treasure added the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, the spiked bayonet at the end of a rifle; and the book would forever remain on his bookshelf or desk—maybe polished, maybe covered in dust—just as the fuhrer had once kept it on his. Maybe one day, the soldier’s kids would knock it down carelessly, and he’d catch them in the act; then reprimand them, then soften them back up, and use this as an opportunity to tell them of how their “good ole’ granddad busted some commie ass” during his militaristic heyday.

A bragging right, that’s all it was. To be placed on a fireplace mantle, and be looked upon by curious neighbors and local photographers, then passed on to the next generation, and then the next—until the museums took it.

It could be that while it remained in the hands of John Pistone, the art in the book was appreciated. Or it could be that not a single photograph in the book’s pages had been looked at critically since Hitler looked through it and said, “That one!”

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Avatar is emotionally involving, and convincing as far as modern day humans’ intentions are concerned. The futuristic, military equipment and gargantuan bulldozers used by the humans in the movie were only slight exaggerations of the real world. Its special effects bring Final Fantasy-esque landscapes to life, and the precipitous hanging cliffs—known in the film as the “Hallelujah Mountains”—could with ease trigger anyone’s acrophobia.

The Three-D I thought to be unnecessary; it often got in the way of the films intricate forest scenes. The characters ran wild through trees for most of the movie and my eyes often lost focus, distracted by the blur of intercepting branches. The Na’Vi’s unique faces and their world’s unexplored colorful creatures would have been easier to absorb had they been depicted more definitely; without the awkward, oblong protruding angles Three-D offers.

The addition of the depth dimension was not just for show—it sends an underlying message pushing the “moral necessity of seeing other beings fully.” (The realization that Three-D was used intentionally, however, won’t come to most viewers until after the movie, so it doesn’t save the film from being seen as a superficial, three-hour display of graphics and scenery.) The Earthlings saw the indigenous tribes of Pandora as savages, standing in the way of natural resources (much like we see the “uncontacted” tribes of the Rainforest today). They saw only their animalistic and natural qualities, but failed to consider their souls, intellect, or cultures, which is what separates all people from animals.

Avatar also offers the idea that humans, like the Na’Vi, were once also connected to the Earth as they are. This makes me wonder: did humans and animals at one time also have extending pony tails which physically conjoined, as well spiritually and mentally connected them to the wildlife? Was this trait, deemed unnecessary after our neglect and taming of Earth’s spirit, discarded as evolution progressed? Avatar was exhilarating to watch, and its subliminal spin brought new life to the ancient tale of colonialism versus aboriginality.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! It's barely past noon and it's already started raining. The weather forecast flashes in front of my eyes as I leave the front door: a bright yellow sun hanging loosely on the screen, covered on one side by precipitous raindrops and on the other by foreboding clouds. Risk of thunderstorm. Alert. Alert.

My bike sits chained to the rack where she left it; too bad I missed her this morning. Since I woke up I worried if she had remember the combination to the lock or not (thank God she did). Maybe that's what the call was about earlier. Had I managed to stay awake long enough to call back I would have known for sure. On my way out of the parking lot I notice a couple, lying together in the grass below the billboard. That could have been us below that billboard, had I only picked up my damn phone.

I start biking home and wonder if I'll make it to my doorstep before the real downpour begins. This was just a taste, a drizzle, teasing and playing with us, an appetizer for the meal that was about to come: a three-course platter of lightning, thunder, and gale force winds, and a light rain embossed in a stale humid air for dessert.

It's typical for someone to picture the worst scenarios while commuting home during harsh weather conditions: family members trapped between cars in highway ditches; children struck by lightning under trees near playgrounds; fathers driving on a highway during a snow storm Jack Frost-style, seconds from crashing. I picture myself in a tornado, spinning endlessly on my bike with my hands gripping the handlebars and my legs kicking violently. I'm the cow from Twister, moo-ing my way through a whirlpool of dust and debris. I'm little Dorothy, caught in a storm; but instead of a house all I have are two wheels and some pedals, and my Kansas is just Central Ontario. My Oz is my imagination.

Even now as I hurry past the red fire hydrants, the left-behind yard toys, and the unchained bicycles across numbers of front porches that are soon to been air-raided by my imaginary typhoon, for a just a single moment I let go of my sense of urgency and focus my attention on the raindrops hitting my forehead. They cool my skin in ways that a splash of icy water from the sink could never do, for they aren't frozen but merely chilly. They tease my skin with the promise of refreshment, prolonging my enjoyment as the time interval between each drop shortens. Not even the fatigue and soreness I was beginning to feel in my thighs from the strain of biking is noticeable anymore. It's not easy to depart from the physical world when you're in motion (and not very safe), but once you do it truly is something to enjoy, to be proud of. Letting go relieves stress and eliminates anxiety. It doesn't eliminate the conflict, just like painkillers don’t eliminate the cause of the pain; but it provides a temporary solace, so that once you’re refreshed you may think more rationally when faced with bigger problems, those that even painkillers can’t fix.

Pulling up to my driveway I see my reflection in our large living room window from across the lawn. My hair looks half-soaked and disheveled, and my pants are splattered with mud. Today is the last day of school, and I have nothing to show for it but a backpack full of hand-outs that will soon fill the recycling bin up to the brim, or burn bit by bit in the fireplace. Nothing at all is different about today’s arrival home on my bike than on any previous day throughout the year. Judging by this weather, it surely doesn't feel like summer. Maybe a week later it will settle in. Maybe once July comes the sun will show itself, and I'll get to sleep in on a Saturday morning without that feeling of having wasted half a day, that I get so often on school-year weekends.