Friday, September 29, 2017

Earth had life very early

Disko Bay in Greenland

New research found Canadian rocks that are nearly 4 billion years old with signs of primitive life.  At the time, Earth was only around 200 million years old.  Which goes to show the different kinds of (crazy hellish) environment where life started, and questions where else life may have/still exists.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Rohingya Crisis, Explained in 6 Points

Rohingya refugees coming into Bangladesh by sea

1. They are the world’s most persecuted minority group

The Rohingya is an ethnic group, majority of which are Sunni Muslims, which has inhabited the Rakhine (Arakan) district of Burma (Myanmar) over one hundred years.  Before the recent violence, an estimated 1.1m Rohingya live in the country.  They are despised by the country’s Buddhist majority and live in apartheid-like conditions.  The government refuses to recognize them as an ethnic minority, describing them as illegal immigrants and interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.

The refugee crisis has strained neighboring countries' capacity for compassion

Clashes in the Rakhine state between the inhabitants and military/security forces erupted numerous times since the 1970s.  Since 1982, when a new citizenship law was passed, the Rohingya has been stateless with no rights to vote, study, work, travel, practice their religion, and access to healthcare services.  According to the UNHCR, one out of seven stateless people in the world is Rohingya.

After renewed violence starting in 2012, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya has fled to neighboring Bangladesh, as well as India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.  The UN Secretary General has dubbed the attacks as "textbook definition of ethnic cleansing".

2. They have been in Burma for ages

19th century mosque in Akyab

Modern-day Burma was part of the British India empire back in during the colonial rule (1824-1948).  Migration of ethnic Indians/Bengali into Burma was not limited in any way, as they are considered one contiguous territory;  British policy actually encouraged Bengali inhabitants to migrate into the then-lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers, and in the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in the area seeking manual work in the paddy fields.  The British census of 1872 reported 58,255 Muslims in Akyab District (modern-day Sittwe/Rakhine district); by 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647.

During the Second World War, the land of Burma (like many parts of Southeast Asia) was annexed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  Native Buddhists mostly sided with the Japanese, because they wanted British colonizers to leave.  On the other hand, the Muslim minority, who has made good living and planted roots as agricultural workers as well as other skilled laborers, mostly stayed with the British's side.  The British even armed its ethnic Indian populace, leading to mass killings in the hands of the Japanese.  Eventually Britain, of course, won the war and they remained until Burma's independence in 1948.

After the Burmese declaration of independence, the government passed the Union Citizenship Act.  The Rohingya, along with other minority groups, was initially provided a real pathway to citizenship.  However, after the 1962 military coup and the subsequent 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya were marginalized and rendered stateless overnight. 

Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee.  During such incidents, refugees have often reported indiscriminate shootings, rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.  Burmese military dictatorship ended with the 2012 free elections, but many central figures of the military remained powerful.  For the victims that suffered atrocities under the military regime, the power that the military still wields means that human rights abuses are expected to continue.
Source: The Economist

3. The Burmese really, really hate the Rohingya

In case you're wondering, Burma's Buddhism is starkly different from familiar western perception of the religion.  Theravada Buddhism (widely practiced in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka) does not recognize the Dalai Lama, and their teachings can be actually quite militant -- they are staunch defenders of blood purity and against minority groups.

Buddhist nationalist propaganda dehumanizes the Rohingya by calling them "descendants of snakes and insects".  In that manner, mistreatment of these people are considered OK as they are not really humans.  These views continue to be popular amongst the educated and the elites.  With state-controlled media, barrage of fake news and internet trolls, laypeople are generally ignorant of what's really happening to their neighbors. 

There are many perceptions and historical factors that contribute to Burma's longstanding hatred of its Muslim minority:
  1. They are just different: the Rohingya (Muslim, ethnic Bengali/Indian) starkly differ in appearance, with darker skins and foreign traditions vis-à-vis the majority of Burma (Buddhists, ethnically closer to Chinese)
  2. The Rohingya do not control births.  This is difficult to show, since there is no state-sponsored healthcare service and no census for non-citizens.
  3. The Rohingya are drug smugglers and criminals.  Again this is also difficult to prove, but in many cases marginalization doesn't leave them much choice. 
  4. Finally, a widely held opinion among the elites and educated: the Rohingya are foreign-influenced, jihadi-inspired, overseas-funded, separatists eager to take over the country and overthrow its leadership.  During the years leading up to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Rohingyas fought in the Mujahid insurgency. They wanted northern Rakhine, where Muslims were concentrated, to be annexed into Pakistan/Bangladesh, and Burma saw this as disloyalty and treason.  More recently local media highlighted ethnic Rohingya who were implicated with al-Qaeda and Taliban.

Massive fires in the Rakhine district, as seen from Bangladeshi borders

4. The government is mostly silent on the humanitarian crisis

Three factors may explain de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence.  The first is domestic politics.  From Harvard Politics:

Ashin Wirathu

"..The 969 Movement, a nationalist Buddhist movement led by monks including Ashin Wirathu, has grown increasingly powerful and is responsible for increase in Islamophobic sentiment among the populace. In addition to encouraging the Burmese to boycott Muslim stores, the movement has also incited violence.  In 2013, monks led rioters to burn homes in the Muslim neighborhood of Meiktila, which led to the deaths of more than 40 Muslims.

In a country where nearly 90% of the populace practices Buddhism, Suu Kyi risks alienating a sizable proportion of the populace should she condemn the Buddhist nationalists.  Furthermore, many government officials are also sympathetic to the movement, including former President Thein Sein, who not only passed four “race and religion” laws that targeted ethnic minorities on issues like religious conversion and interfaith marriage.  Suu Kyi remains soft on the issue of Buddhist nationalism to avoid offending the monks, and her own government officials...."

The second factor is the military.  By constitution, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar defense forces) has a number of seats in the parliament and discretion to declare a state of emergency.  It also controls important ministries in the government and many other centers of power.  The country’s leadership is managing a delicate balance of power and cannot afford to upset the balance.  In this sense, the Buddhist nationalists and the military have joined forces in their decision to persecute the Rohingya as “deadweight” and “interlopers”.  The government is stuck trying to keep up with the alliance, although many indications also show that the three generally agree on the matter of the Rohingya.

Third, it's just about popular views. There's every indication  that the elites and the majority of the population do not care for the rights of Muslim minority.  More moderate viewpoints see citizenship as the key question: that citizenship rights shouldn't be awarded without extensive scrutiny -- dare I say, extreme vetting.

5. World powers are also silent

It's not because of lack of forewarning.  From Foreign Policy magazine:

"... in 2005, the member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, which obligates the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their governments are “unwilling or unable” to keep them safe. R2P was borne out of collective guilt over the mass slaughter of civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia and promised a new era of “timely and decisive” atrocity response. In pursuit of this goal, early warning efforts to identify the precursors of mass atrocities became a focus for both international and state actors.

[…] The plight of the Rohingya suggests that early warnings do little to prevent atrocities against vulnerable groups. The high risk of mass atrocities was clear from the escalating communitarian violence, the documented uptick in online hate speech beginning in 2012, and the tightening of official restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement and activities."

Simultaneous humanitarian crises in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Syria and Yemen, have desensitized the world in the face of potential genocide.  UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia, which are battling dissidents within their own borders, doesn't want to invoke the R2P lest it would be against them in the future.  Furthermore, in the aftermath of the NATO-led 2011 Libya intervention, where R2P was explicitly invoked, decision-makers are concerned they might be making a bad situation worse

Money politics is also a concern.  China has been the largest investor into Burma.  Fmr US President Obama, refusing to let the country fall under the Chinese sphere of influence, made official visits to the capital in 2012 and 2014, praised the country's fledgling democracy, and lifted decades-long sanctions.  It is clear that complex geopolitical games are in play, and unfortunately, the Rohingya and human rights are not pieces in the puzzle.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump's America First is willfully abandoning the world stage, showing apathy and paying diminished attention to human rights issues.

The government and the military, with dominant national support, branded the Rohingya as Islamic militants.  Tapping into international counter-terrorism narratives simultaneously bolsters the legitimacy of the military operation against the Rohingya and undermines their status as innocent victims of state abuse.  Amongst the Burmese people, the rhetoric aborts empathy for the Rohingya by declaring them militants and potentially dangerous.

The neighboring governments most directly affected by the refugee crisis, Bangladesh and India, have generally just allowed the Rohingya into their borders -- but as matter of policy, they declare that the refugees cannot stay permanently, which is understandable given the heavy burden and lackluster, unsustainable conditions of the camps.

6. Finally: you can help

Monday, September 11, 2017


So Jared Kushner, the unpaid White House aide who's now tasked with handling Middle East peace, opioid addiction crisis, and American innovation(TM), used to be a Baltimore-area slum lord.  But he dumped all those in favor of a $1.8bn Fifth Avenue building that can only attract investment from shady origins.  No wonder DC elites don't care much for them....

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

More Soviet Jokes

From CIA declassified files:

A Soviet worker stands in a long liquor line.  He says to his friend, "I've had enough of this.  Save my spot, I'm gonna go shoot Gorbachev."  Two hours later he returns to claim his spot in line.  His friend asks, "Did you get him?"  "No, the line there was even longer than it is here."

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Is the electric guitar dead?

A few thoughts on Washington Post's latest article on the woes of guitar companies:

  • An article about guitar spends so many paragraphs on Taylor Swift? I guess that's where we're at right now...   Also it's not all about Clapton or BB King; there are younger guitar gods around: Derek Trucks and Gary Clark Jr. are probably around my age.  Also worth mentioning, musicians dont need to be Eric Johnson-calibre talent to make cool stuff; I respect guys like Ed Sheeran who writes music prolifically and can lead a full-length concert with just his Martin acoustic and loop pedal (no band!). 
  • Millennials don't like/can't afford to spend money in general, thanks to (among others) student loans.  Not just a guitar problem, but look at decline in home ownership. Declining interest in golf. And so on. 
  • Speaking as a terrible guitarist, it's really hard to justify buying a $3,000 American Fender when I can spend $400 (or $200 used!) on something Indonesian-made that sounds just as terrible on my hands. And I reckon 95% of guitar buyers are probably not good players.
  • Music nowadays feels more about the production that about playing instruments, with software such as Ableton and Garage Band. Which makes me respect for musicians and vocalists who really spend the time honing their skills -- people like Mark Tremonti, whose riffs I can probably never play, not even one.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

... that time the Mountains kicked my arse...

Friday (6/24/16) -- H-1 (the day before)
5.00PM - Board Citilink flight BPN-CGK
6.30PM - Land at CGK
8.00PM - Arrived home, had dinner.
9.00PM - Kissed the baby, put stuff in backpack, went to bed
11.00PM - Regretting the ice coffee I had at lunch.  Read last week's Tempo again.

Starting point

Start of the hike

Saturday -- D-day
2AM - Finally got some shut eye
3.15AM - Alarm vibrate goes off.  Get up and shower.
4.00AM - Quick bite, off I go on the loaned Toyota Camry
4.15AM - Picked up friends at Ritz Carlton hotel, off to the freeway
7.00AM - Arrived at Gunung Salak - Gathered at the starting point.  Elevation 700m.  Started our hike up
8.00AM - Left behind, lost track of most poeple in our group
11.30AM - Completely out of breath, almost out of water.  Gave up at Checkpoint 3 - Elevation 1,700m (Peak would be at 2,800m).  Sat down for 15 minutes, decided that resting in the cold is a terrible idea.  Made my way back down
13.00PM - Out of water.  Tapped the mountain spring water pipes.
13.30PM - Got lost, couldn't find tracks.  Thought to myself, "OMG, am I gonna die here?", several times.
14.00PM - After backtracking, rendezvous with groupmate who had already reached the top and went back down
15.00PM - Reached starting point.
16.00PM - Collapsed at a local house.  Got some shut eye for about an hour while waiting for the rest of the crew.
18.00 sun finally sets. Two in our gang still haven't reached the starting point.  A sherpa is sent for rescue.
20.00PM - Left for home
23.00PM - Arrived at KFC - Bought a bucket (9 pieces) for 4 people + sides.

Around the point where I threw in the towel

All I could see is green

Sunday -- The aftermath
2.00AM - Arrived home. Collapsed. Didn't wake up until 11.30AM.

Lessons learned for future hikes (ha!):
  • Bring tons of gear -- more than you think you need.
  • Situational awareness is your best friend. 
  • Bring lots of water, canteen 4 Liters minimum -- I sweat a ton, other people may not.  Regardless of your sweat, you lose water through your sweat glands.  Dehidration, exposure to the elements, are deadly.  Even mild cases of dehidration does wonders to your decision-making.  Find sources of water.  Mountain spring, streams, leaves, moist plants, anything will help you.  Diarrhea later is preferable to dehydration now
  • Bring change of clothes - wet clothes will get you cold faster
  • Don't veer off path
  • Keep track using GPS -- use things like Google's My Tracks, Endomondo or something like that so you can track your way back
  • Altimeter - something as rudimentary as a Casio G-Shock.  Again, situational awareness is key.  Having a sense of how far you are from the top, or from the bottom, allows your mind to re-adjust and ignore the voices that come along with dehydration. 
  • Power bank (battery pack) -- obvious
  • Food (something light): carbs, proteins, sugar. Sweets to get your sugar level back up.
  • Rubber tubing or a small straw - to get water from streams or pipes.
  • Get yourself into shape.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How to read Scholarly Journals efficiently

Pulitzer-quality, if there's such a thing in scholarly journals

If you're in academia, or in the middle of a postgraduate program, you are going to have to read and write a lot of research papers.
It's important to understand how these papers are structured.  They are not the same as the kind of essays we write in undergraduate classes.

In most cases, scholarly papers cover just a small portion of a larger question and shows supporting/disputing evidence on a limited set of hypotheses.  For instance, an astronomy paper may cover the big question: "What is the climate like at Jupiter's moon Ganymede?", and the paper seeks to show that the atmosphere consists of 3.7% Helium gas (Editor's note: I totally made this up), in addition to other gases that have previously been shown to exist.  The "meat" of the paper would show the spectrum analysis of photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The paper would then end with what could be the implication of  finding He in Ganymede, conjecturing that the moon was made out of totally different materials from Jupiter itself.

My proposed strategy:

  1. Start with the Abstract.  Read in entirety.
  2. Read the opening section.
  3. Read the closing section.  By then you will have an idea where the problem starts, and where does the research end.
  4. For the middle section, start with all the charts and tables, see if any of these make sense to you in the scheme of the problem statement.
  5. Take a step back and review. 

The above strategy should give you a sense of what the paper's actually trying to accomplish.  If it's interesting, go ahead and read the paper in its entirety.  Otherwise, move on.