Monday, August 10, 2015

Oil Makes the World Go Round

My Saturday mornings are usually lost in the blurry haze of lethargic activity. I roll out of bed (literally - I flop dramatically onto the floor and groan for a few minutes) before stumbling to the bathroom to take a shower. A half an hour later, after steamy water and a bowl of cereal, I buckle myself next to my dad and brace myself for an hour's ride into New York City.  I used to think it was the coolest thing ever to get to go to the city on a weekly basis, to go to Columbia and listen to (usually) fabulous lectures by brilliant students and professors, but, as with most things, the magic wore off with time. I still get excited in class when we learn something mind-blowing, of course, but I started to approach the whole affair with a certain amount of tedium. I was tired, plain and simple. That all changed earlier this year, when I got to take a course on "Energy and the Modern Economy." I entered the course sure that I would spent each class doodling in the corners of my notebook. What interesting things could I learn about the economy? I had always hated finance and economics with their immense reliance on probability and statistics, so I viewed the class as another chore to get over with. I was absolutely sure the professor would be a sixty year old man who spent his youth running around on Wall Street before retiring to Columbia to drone on about the benefits of capitalism. Great.
Instead, I was greeted on the first day by an amazingly witty, knowledgeable, fun PhD student who was barely in his thirties. As the weeks passed by (time went by much quicker than I anticipated), I learned more about coal and solar and biofuels, but above all, I learned about oil. I learned that the world runs on oil - literally. Entire countries' economies hinge on national oil companies' profits while on an individual level, citizens need oil to power their transportation and their lives. International diplomatic relationships are often shifted entirely based off the global concern of oil - after all, the price of oil is set on an international scale and is often transported between countries, mandating that a certain amount of pleasantry and maneuvering is required to keep oil flowing and avoid disrupting peoples' lives. Take the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example. American officials may frown upon and at times be completely outraged over Saudi Arabia's "religious police" and the restrictions they impose upon women and their citizens, at large, but that frustration is carefully hidden behind a mask of remaining allies to keep oil from destabilizing. As we discussed more and more of the intricacies of oil, I finally realized just how interconnected, and how interdependent, our world is.
Oil shapes the world...
While my energy class ended a few months ago, I've begun to notice how prevalent the topics I learned about are. Every time I browse through headlines in a national newspaper, I see something related to oil, usually tied in with other major international headlines. This week, that story came in the form of a New York Times article describing how rising tensions in Yemen have introduced the possibility of future volatility in the oil market and caused a price spike this Thursday. In Yemen, a group of Houthi rebels are backed by Iran and fight against the country's president who is backed by major oil producer Saudi Arabia. The conflict has led to recent bombings which, in turn, has set the international economic community on edge. While Yemen does not produce a whole lot of oil (usually only around 130,000 barrels a day compared to Saudi Arabia's 9,460,000 barrels per day), it is critically located on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Countless oil tankers go through this strait, passing between Yemen and Africa, in order to get to the Suez Canal and export oil to other nations (see the map below). Strife in Yemen could mean disruptions in naval traffic, leading to the slowing down of oil deliveries and the stagnation of the global oil economy, at large (read more about this here).
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is tiny, but must be crossed if ships from the UAE or other Middle Eastern countries want to access the Red Sea and Suez Canal
This is not the first time in history that political unrest raised fears about the economic future of oil. Shortly after World War II in 1951, Iran's government underwent a radical shift as a new nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, took center stage and sought to nationalize Iran's oil reserves. Britain immediately grew concerned, worrying that this governmental change would crash its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and so began economic sanctions against Iran. The US under President Truman remained largely neutral at first, but later grew to mistrust Mossadegh, worrying that his actions would wildly destabilize Iran's economy. This could mean that the USSR would step in and offer economic assistance to Iran, spreading communism into a new part of the world. Very concerned about the Soviet Union, the US quietly aided a coup d'etat to throw Mossadegh out of power two years after the start of this Iranian Crisis.
As with most domestic concerns for the US at the time, the Iranian Crisis of '51 was a symptom of the much larger threat of the Cold War
These lines of thinking probably seem a bit paranoid - so there is/was unrest in the Middle East, what else is new? So what if the oil market goes up or down a little? The reality, though, is that even a small degree of conflicts in this extraordinarily volatile, but fundamentally important part of the globe makes the entire world hold its breath. We need oil and are desperate to maintain peace in order to get it. Decreases in oil prices lead to happy voters and smoothly moving industries, while increases or sudden oil shortages leave the world on stand-still mode. Fluctuations in oil prices change standards of living at home in the US and directly impact citizens in a way that few other resources can, so every political problem in the Middle East leads to an undercurrent of worry with the question, "What'll happen to oil?" running in everyone's head.

Behind the Scenes

Post transferred from my old blog here:

Politics fascinates me. I love reading about the latest developments, debating over different ideologies, and full-out ranting about the on goings in Washington. In daily life, we are often too polite to voice our perhaps controversial opinions lest we anger or upset someone, but in politics, that same conviction and passion is (sometimes) rewarded. Often, when I'm talking with some of my oldest friends, the conversation somehow meanders into opinions on things like social welfare or abortions or involvement in wars. Despite having known each other for over a decade, we stumble, careful to insert "this is just what I think" or "but I don't really know enough about the topic" into every other sentence. There's a reason why you're not supposed to discuss politics at the table: it's polarizing.
But my dad and I are far past upholding pretenses of pleasantries. Whenever I read about an unfolding situation on Capitol Hill or find out about a national event, I ask my dad what he thinks of it. Often, we agree and commiserate on how terrible things have gotten or how impressed we are by someone's actions. Sometimes we don't. Those times, our innocent conversation somehow derails into slightly loud discussions which generally end with me silently thinking my dad is old fashioned or my dad thinking I am far too young to understand. It's all in good fun, but during these conversations, I can't help but wonder how politicians in Washington debate issues when my dad and I, who usually are so agreeable, can quickly dissolve into barely-concealed arguments. How much must be going on behind the scenes? What kind of concessions must be made just to pass a bill or to garner support for an issue? How, in short, does Washington run?
Of course, we could all just say Washington doesn't run and sit back and smirk at our own wit as we put down our governing body. I definitely do that all the time. But, despite its many, many flaws, the sheer fact that we have a running, (sort of) functional democracy is astounding. And elections! For so many countries across the globe, holding elections turns into an unmitigated disaster and sometimes stops completely, turning presidencies into dictatorships in a matter of months. Somehow in the U.S., each political party manages to orderly choose its candidate and the nation gets to decide which one to vote for. I was particularly impressed by this earlier this year when Mitt Romney quickly hinted at his interest in running in 2016 before he just as quickly announced he would be stepping out a scant week later (read more about that here).
The general buildup to the presidential election of 2016 has been filled with many "maybe" candidates. Hillary Clinton still has not officially announced she would be running (although people have been suggesting she would for years now) and the Republican nominee possibilities include many people from Jeb Bush to Rand Paul to Chris Christie. But the case with Mitt Romney caught my attention more than any other. The man seemed to do a complete 180 following a meeting with several important investors. Within the space of that one meeting, Romney decided to quell his ambitions and, instead, support the party by freeing up his supporters to back other candidates. The entire future of a major political party was shaped in a matter of hours by a couple of men holed up in a room.
This got my curious about hidden political meetings and the amount of things that get done "backstage" in our political system. So much must be going on behind the scenes to keep each elected official going in a certain path and to keep our entire system of government running. The renown "situation room" in the White House must contain countless top-secret military conferences that determine how the United States will interact with the rest of the world.
Of course, hidden meetings of a few impacting the future of many is not something unique about the United States. It is, after all, in the nature of most forms of government to have political leaders be privy to more information and thus make large-scale decisions. The very concept dates back to the days of the Roman Republic. For example, in 56 BC, overly two millenia ago, Roman leaders Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus met in the Lucca Conference to determine the fate of Rome. The actual city was in turmoil, a leader was sorely needed. And so, these three men sat down and created the bonds of the First Triumvirate, ultimately deciding Rome's future for the next several years.
Pompey and Crassus, they decided, would run together for the consulship in 55 BC while Caesar would command Gaul. Once their consulship was over, Crassus would sustain control of Syria while Pompey would keep Hispania. And that was that. Three men controlling the fate of an entire empire, splitting up whole nations as if they were sharing pieces of an entree. While (hopefully), nothing of that large of a scale is happening in Washington, all this simply begs the question: how much do we not know?

Relationship Status: It's Complicated

Post transferred from my old blog here:

It seems that the US has had a complicated relationship with its police force for decades. In elementary schools, police officers visit classrooms with smiles and free rulers, instilling the idea of officers being friendly and helpful in children's heads. When we get older, this positive image sometimes transforms into visions of chubby older men who are disturbingly fond of donuts - still just as jolly and helpful, if slightly more inept, as we thought they were as children. At certain times, though, these images are pushed back by a more negative perspective based off words like "racial profiling" or "police brutality."
There's a clear divide between the police and protesters in this march in Ferguson, Missouri.
This has been especially true as of late, when the death of African-American Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer brought outrage and spread riots across the country. Ferguson, Missouri became a scene from a book, filled with angry marching protesters, broken shop windows, and a general state of chaos. As accused police officer Darren Wilson stood trial in front of a grand jury, the entire nation seemed to be getting personally invested. Protests sparked across multiple cities, spawning catchy phrases such as "Black Lives Matter," and creating tense scenes for local law enforcement. When the result of the trial came out, Twitter erupted. Everyone and their brother had an opinion they were convinced was the only logical answer. My own Twitter page turned into a series of outraged tweets and argumentative comments. Now, after the governor of Missouri lifted the state of emergency, after the media hyped up every tiny proceeding of the case, after the hysteria seemed to reach a more stable level, another stitch has been added to the fold. Two police officers of the NYPD were killed by a man who some claim was motivated by anti-police protests (you can read more about these latest developments here). At this point, I can't help but sit back and wonder at what is going on. This is the first time I have extensively followed a story, both through the news and social media, and have seen so many different events feed into each other to form a chaotic pile of fallen dominoes.
Police spraying peaceful protesters with high-pressure water in Birmingham, Alabama during the Birmingham Campaign
This isn't the first time something like this has happened in history, though. The Civil Rights Era in the US was particularly notorious for police brutality against a minority group (specifically, as it is in the present case, with African Americans) which led to a chain reaction of events. Earlier during the movement, for example, police brutality during the Birmingham campaign and the Selma to Montgomery marches led to national outrage and the formation of the Black Panther Party - a black group which fought back with violence (departing from Margin Luther King Jr's nonviolent approach). In Birmingham, a series of boycotts, sit-ins, and marches where police used used high-pressure hoses and dogs against protesters as seen in the image to the left. Meanwhile in the Selma to Montgomery marches, state troopers used clubs and tear gas against the protesters in a show of violence so extreme, the day was nicknamed "Bloody Sunday." The needless violence, similar to the police brutality seen on a more individual (and less widespread) basis in the present, naturally sparked uproar. Decades later, in 1991, another black man, Rodney King, was beaten by the police. The beating was video taped and released to the public (eerily similar to the case with Eric Garner). Following the acquittal of the officers seen beating King, Los Angeles was shaken by intense riots. The state of hysteria and outrage seems completely in place with the current state of matters, which only begs the question: will race issues again be swept under the rug this time, only to flare up again in the future?

The "Everyman" Politician

Post transferred from my old blog here:

I remember the first time I got really excited about politics. It was the 2008 presidential elections when, for the first time, I actually understood a little bit of what was going on. Those funny men in suits who always showed up on TV finally had a name, a platform, a purpose behind them. I eagerly watched as McCain and Obama worked through their campaigns, giving speeches, participating in debates, and making more and more ads. More than anything, I remember being a little awe-struck by Obama's rags to riches story. I felt like I could relate to this man who, like me, spent part of his childhood in a different country. His life, filled with struggles and hardships similar to what my parents went through, seemed to be the embodiment of the American dream, of the common American who worked his way up.
Say what you will about the president now, but the 2008 candidate was extraordinarily skillful in rallying supporters around his "common man who will bring change" campaign.
Now, years later, I'm seeing more and more politicians use the same "everyman" strategy (highlighted in this NY Times article which specifically discusses the image candidates for the upcoming midterm elections in Congress are trying to achieve). Every time I flip through channels or wander around on the Internet, there seems to be an oddly high number of smiling men and women, shaking hands and making confident speeches, staring back through the screen. These politicians are desperate to eliminate any sense of elitism from their campaigns. They're not like the Clintons or the Bushes - they're not from fancy political families. They're just "common Americans" who want the same thing you do. They're just like you, don't you see?
But when my history class watched a video of a possible future senator talk about castrating pigs in her childhood, I realized just how far these ads went. In an attempt to appeal to the public, Republican Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst buttoned up her plaid shirt, slung on a plain brown vest, and took her spot in the middle of a barn surrounded by pigs in pens. Yes. Really. In the space of about thirty seconds, Ernst managed to showcase herself not only as a pig castrator, but also as a "soldier, mother, conservative" and hopefully a US senator. Check out the full video here.
She's an ordinary farm-girl who grew up castrating pigs and wearing plaid button-ups - just like you! Yay Joni Ernst!
In another ad, this one from Georgia, Democratic Senate candidate John Barrow happily pets his dog and throws a tennis ball, before putting his hands on his hips and insisting he's created new jobs and cut spending. Like Ernst, he also throws in a few not-so-subtle digs about other politicians in Washington. In fact, Barrow closes his ad saying, "I approve this message because she [my dog] works harder than most of them [the Congressmen] do." Check out his video here.
Oh look, another average plaid-wearing Joe who's enjoying quality time with his golden retriever! Yay for John Barrow because he really gets us!
With all of these slightly over-the-top antics going on, I can't help but think back to Andrew Jackson and his own "common man" campaign. Prior the Jackson, the majority of American presidents were wealthy, educated, upperclass men. Many of them were the epitome of the Southern gentleman, owning large plantations in places like Virginia, or they were the quintessence of the Northern scholar, with a career in history and law in places like New York. Admittedly, Jackson did own a rather nice plantation in Tennesse and he had been both a House representative and a senator. Still, Jackson managed to project an aura of the ordinary frontiersman. While Ernst emphasized her childhood on an Iowan farm, Jackson emphasized how he had grown up in the west, facing the struggles of living at the border of civilization. Noting that his mother and brothers died during a British invasion, and that he, himself, had little formal schooling, Jackson managed to appeal to the mass of Americans of the time. Prior to his first presidential campaign in 1824, voting requirements were changed so that men no longer had to hold property in order to vote. This drew in a large segment of the poorer population of the US, who looked up to Andrew Jackson and idiolized his humble origins, his success as a self-made man, and his victories on the battlefield. Backed by a strong band of supporters, Jackson won teh popular vote, but was denied the electoral vote after fellow candidates Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams formed a bargain that put Adams in the Oval Office as president and Clay in the Cabinet as secretary of state.
Then in the presidential election of 1828, Jackson, like Barrow, spoke negatively about politics in Washington. He mentioned the "corrupt deal" between Clay and Adams as a prime example of the crookedness present in nation's government. When he was elected, Jackson then went on to bring his mob of "ruffians" into the White House, itself, for the inaugaration, thoroughly trashing the building.
Prim and proper Washington DC was in for a shock when Andrew Jackson took office...
So while this latest batch of campaign ads does seem a bit silly, it is firmly rooted in the nation's history of politics. These candidates, like Jackson, hope to ride the coattails of the public's good grace into the office of their choosing, relying on their ability to appeal to everyone with their message of being "just like you!" We shall see in a few months just how successful they are.

Ignorance is Bliss?

We have information at the tips of our fingers. A few typed words, a couple clicks, and we can learn about events occurring at that very moment a half a world away. It's an entire wealth of information that was unavailable to so many generations before us. Or so everyone says.
I've heard countless adults express this very idea, trying to impress on me just how lucky I am to be living in a world chock filled with technology and knowledge. It's an idea that's so widely expressed, it's almost become cliche. I guess I never really appreciated how true it is, though, until I got the New York Times app this summer. Instead of actually reading it, I just let the app sit in a rarely opened folder in my phone, content to know that at least I had the ability to be more up-to-date on world events. But then I started getting these notifications.
I would wake up and check my phone only to see a headline about Israeli missiles landing in Palestine, killing dozens of people whose names I do not know and whose faces I have never seen. Or I would see something about a plane crash in Ukraine and the reactions of the international community as it tried to piece together what happened. Or, just last week, I saw the final decision of Scotland's referendum for independence. The media allows me, still half asleep in my bed, to learn about global events that are so far removed from my life, I would never have otherwise heard of them. I can't imagine living in a world where the media didn't exist, or one where the government and media pick and choose what pieces of information are fed to me. But that is exactly what's happening in Hong Kong (and yes I did learn about this through a NYTimes article). 
The ever growing Hong Kong protests for democracy have been kept in the shadows for the rest of mainland China. There, in an effort to play down the protests, the Chinese government has hushed up the media and stifled online commentary. Instagram was inaccessible in the country to ensure that pictures of the protests would not incite a mass public uproar. China's "Great Firewall" manages to block other sites with information regarding the protests. "Private" text messages between citizens were censored so they wouldn't include words like "tear gas." These measures have been so effective that, according to this article, most of the Chinese population has no idea the protests are going on. Media and communication are so heavily monitored in the fear that, if a large population of people find out about an event, they would take action against the government.
People are filling the streets of Beijing and yet, mere miles away, other segments of the population remain blissfully unaware.
It's a situation that seems almost unthinkable in the modern era. Widespread governmental censorship is, however, more common in history than you would think. Perhaps the most famous example would be the careful review of books, photos, and articles under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Books containing unapproved views would be banned and burned, photos edited to make political enemies appear to never have existed, and articles rewritten to make it appear as if everything was going well. When one of Stalin's Five Year Plans seemed to not be working so well, articles would simply be full of false information on how improved the country was. The population was deliberately spoon fed particular lies to ensure they would be complacent.
By blocking sites via the "Great Firewall," mainland China is kept mostly in the dark - ignorant and peaceful.
While it may seem like a bit of an extreme example to compare 21st century China with the USSR, the fact remains that obstructing basic information from citizens is a crime. The people of a country deserve to know what is going on in their own land. They should be allowed to form their own opinions, even if those opinions are against their government's views. Yes, there are some things related to national security and such that should not be made public, but when you have a nation full of people who don't know about massive protests occurring in their capital (while the rest of the world has already heard about it), something is obviously wrong.

Changing Directions

In many ways, this blog has suffered a similar fate to my diary. You see, many years ago, I was captivated by the idea of diaries. I could write about whatever I wanted in this private book that nobody could see, and then read my thoughts, even years later? Sounds fabulous! I want to try! And so, at first, I was extraordinarily devout about writing in my little purple notebook every day (which I christened "Ani" in my animal-crazy state). As the years went by, I still had plenty of stuff to write about, but my time was put into other things and my notebook was pushed to the back of my desk. I would write an entry every now and then, out of guilt for having abandoned it for so long, but those entries would have months or even years of space in between. I did have relapses, however, when I would sit down and give myself a pep talk on the importance of keeping records of your younger self, to read and smile at in the future. And so my diary is an odd timeline, jumping haphazardly between grades and years without a thought for consistency.

For the longest time, I thought that my blog would also fade away into a similar state of "forgottenness." But then, something changed. In history, we had a year-long assignment to keep a blog that connected current events to historical acts that quickly changed from another piece of homework on my to-do list to something I actively looked forward to writing in every month. I've loved reading and listening to the news since I was little, so the purpose of the blog felt really natural for me - something I would genuinely want to do for fun. So I've decided to transfer all my old posts from that blog into this one and begin writing posts again that relate mostly to current or historical events. I'm not entirely sure what direction I'll be heading with this (most likely, my posts will be a collection of personal anecdotes, mostly polite rants, and semi incoherent rambles), but I guess we'll see. In any case, I'll be posting a lot more soon :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Rambles on Neverness

I read a book. It made me think.

What is a point? I was taught it was a dot in space, a single location, the very basis of geometry. It has no size, no features, only properties that it follows. How simple. And yet I can't even envision this lengthless, widthless, sizeless thing. What is a point? A point is a point.

I rather hated this book, so full of pretentious themes and presumptuous questions. How I ached to abandon it, to close its nonexistent pages (for you see, the book did not even have the redeeming quality of being a book - it was a text file).

What then is a line? A collection of points? But if a point has no size, then how does a line, a string of points, come to have an infinite length? How is the summation of an infinite set of zeros produce infinity? How does everything come forth from nothing? How, how, how? What is a line? A line is a line is a line.

It was exhausting, this funny little text file. Seconds, minutes, whole half-hours would pass as I read on. Sometimes I would note every dragging tick of time and sometimes I would not. How strange a read. How utterly curious.

And a square? What is that? Why it is the union of four intersecting line segments, touching just so. Defined by its right angles and its quadruplet of equal length sides, the rectangle suddenly adds width to its parent line. 2D from 1 from 0. What is a square? A square is a square is a square is a square. 

It was, perhaps, the strangest book I have ever read - daring to call its characters arrogant and vain when it, itself, thought to write answers to the fundamental questions of life and death shrouded in clouds of "big words" and "higher vocabulary." Oh how I hated this book.

And so the whole of geometry is built from the feathery wisps of concepts that are at once primitively simple and frighteningly incomprehensible.

I hated this book, this text file, this thing enough to shudder past pages of torture and death and cruelty. I hated it enough to scroll through three hundred and sixty odd pages, squinting at a dizzyingly bright screen in the dark. I hated it enough to write about it in a blog abandoned for over a year.

Is that not beautiful in its own, albeit confusing, mathematical (or is it artistic?) way?

Perhaps I hated Neverness enough to feel a shred of reluctant love for it.