Monday, October 12, 2015

Canadian War Hero Romeo Dallaire and the Fight for Social Justice

UN Mission of Rwanda
Recently, I had the honor and opportunity to attend a keynote address by retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. I had been invited by my dear colleague and filmmaker Leigh Badgley to attend the Allard Prize for International Integrity in which the following short film Allard Prize for International Integrity 2015 Finalists of hers was being showcased. More about the prize a little later, but my focus is mainly on the speech by Romeo Dallaire and its impact.

I first got a glimpse of him as he entered the stage with the prize committee all of whom were dressed in colorful academic robes. As he was sitting there, he looked somewhat stiff and slightly uncomfortable. He was about to receive his honorary degree and as the announcer introduced him, I realized that he was the Canadian officer depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda.

In Rwanda, he had disobeyed his UN orders and had followed his own ethical guidelines to ensure the safety of the African citizens and to stand up against genocide in that country; Dallaire is credited with saving the lives of more than 30,000 people. Already we see two traits here, one, a person who is not tied to blind obedience and discipline, and second, a person who is rooted in deep morality.

Dallaire did not speak immediately after receiving his honorary doctorate, but came back a little later for his keynote speech. This was a good idea because when he returned he had taken off his academic cape and wardrobe and looked much more human and comfortable as a result. 

Right after his first words, we sensed that he had a sense of humor. He had some words for his daughter who was studying at UBC for her MBA and bragged to her that he had already received his doctorate just like that.

Then, he shared his love for public speaking with us and the fact that he likes to show slides; it was the first of over 126 slides, he joked, and this was already the cut-down version. Yet he was not there to clown around or to merely entertain us; in fact, he had a lot of interesting observations to make. He shared some of his personal stories and ideas, which ought to be heeded and followed by us all, citizens, politicians, and military personnel alike.

First off, he looked at the question of humanity. Many times we overlook the humanity of others, particularly when it comes to our opponents. In our mind, whether consciously or not, we strip them bare of their humanity and see them as monsters or perpetrators of evil. 

One of the biggest and saddest issues that concerns Dallaire - and he has devoted significant time and energy towards this - is the continued use of child soldiers. This should not happen and children should not be viewed or treated as enemy soldiers. While adults may have their disagreements, children should not be dragged into these conflicts and not be sent to the front lines with weapons in their hands.

He gave us a personal example when he was in Rwanda. They were driving on a narrow strip, a no man's land marked between the Hutu and Tutsis, and they encountered a young boy of six or seven at the crossroads. They had heard of potential ambushes that used this method of distraction. The boy had a protruding belly of hunger and looked demarcated and innocent, but Dallaire and his fellow soldiers quickly got off the jeep and searched the surrounding areas for hidden attackers.

Yet they found nothing but empty huts filled with corpses. Then when they had cleared and secured the area, they returned to the road and found that the boy was missing; he was not at his previous spot. They now continued the quest for him and finally found him in a hut on the other side with what must have been his parents whose corpses were half eaten by wild animals.

So they took this boy with them and Dallaire looked him in the eye and did not see any enemy or monster but a boy like any other. These were the eyes of a troubled soul, but more importantly, those of a human being. And he was reminded of his own son of about the same age; he had left him behind in Canada before embarking on his mission. 

This boy was essentially like any other except that he had been afflicted with the greatest tragedy, while other children elsewhere - in particular fortunate places like Canada - have both rights and privileges and live a generally carefree and innocent life.

The suffering of children continued to affect him in addition to those grisly images he must have seen in times of duty and in his later missions and visits to troubled and war-torn areas. He had just returned from the refugee camps in Syria and said that there were many people living under deplorable and miserable circumstances.

There were young children and teenagers who were stuck a this place doing nothing, trying to survive at best and who were losing up to four years and counting of their lives. This time could have been filled with education, but effectively it was dead and wasted time. 

These young people would never forget those horrible and gruesome situations they had been exposed to, and they would carry around this emotional baggage with them; they would perhaps point blame at others or germinate later plans of destruction and create further suffering for others as well.

These are things we rarely fully understand or picture in our minds. We live a comfortable and sheltered life and know little of what is going on around us in other parts of the world. We hear about the extreme situations of refugees dying during their escape, but little do we think about all those who are stuck there and whose daily life consists of endless moments of suffering strung together into a bleak future.

Our political leaders miscalculated their moves because according to Dallaire, Syria has converted to a place of utter and (almost) irreversible chaos and mayhem. Military airstrikes had very little effect, if any; if the international leaders wanted to solve the issue now, it would take at least a hundred thousand foot soldiers. The leaders have waited too long to act and the whole situation has now gotten out of control.

Moreover, Dallaire praised all those who are ready to fight corruption (the main theme of the evening and symbolized through the works of those courageous nominees) and that often such change comes at the price of blood. 

He also said that the status quo is a fallacy and can only lead to stagnation. What we need to do as individuals is to ensure that there is constant change and progress at every moment of our lives. We should never stand still, but always look and move ahead to make this place a better and safer place for us all.

He even mentioned the word “revolution.” He said he could say it now that he is retired and not under the army's spell and command anymore. Such changes are indeed necessary for a better future. Some international courts decrying war crimes is a good step; that there are many exceptional people working towards international peace and towards accountability of wrongdoers is commendable, but perhaps we should also have a court that decries corruption and has international leverage to enforce issues.

Finally, corruption happens everywhere, whether we see it or not. However, it is our duty to expose corruption, to condemn it and not let those evil-doers get away with those crimes. As he was talking about social justice and personal engagement, and, in particular, the plight of children, which moved me most, I could not help thinking that my contributions on this front are generally negligible and rather insignificant in comparison. I should do more and perhaps (and hopefully) raising a little of awareness here would a first step towards that goal.

As we gave him a standing ovation and as I was thinking that he fully deserved his honorary degree (in fact, I would have given him two or more) he added two things in closure: one, that he was proud serving in the army, and two, that we should treat our vets, especially those who put themselves in danger and who suffer maiming and mental torment for us with more respect.

I cannot imagine the scenes of death and destruction that they must face in times of war, and I wonder how they can still uphold faith in humanity and the human race after witnessing such atrocities. This is perhaps why Dallaire kept repeating that things are looking not so good and that we have failed on many respects. Yet one thing is for sure, they are heroes as they risk their lives and mental health for us.

As this is Thanksgiving Day here in Canada, I would also like to extend and include my thanks and admiration for all those who stand up and fight against injustice here and around the world. We saw four nominees that risked their own safety and well-being to expose corruption in their respective countries, be it in Indonesia, Russia, Angola or Kenya.

However, I believe that one must do what one deems necessary and that paying with blood or putting your and your loved ones' safety at risk ought not to be the prerequisite for everyone. One can bring about change in smaller ways by doing what one can. 

That can be blogging about such issues, raising awareness, donating for good causes as well as voting responsibly. But to all those who are willing to take the extra step with the evident risks attached to it, I raise my glass of wine to you and offer my heartfelt thanks!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Mars One Mission: One-Way Ticket to Space

Astronaut on Mars
Something fishy is going on here. There are a number of films that deal with distant space travel involving humans (Christopher Nolan's Interstellar and The Martian directed by Ridley Scott come to mind) and then there are a number of NASA space missions that constantly bring us news about the red planet, including the recent discovery of water on Mars. When there is so much focus on one thing, especially in the media, I become suspicious and look for a hidden agenda.

A possible objective could be possibly to raise and drum public support (and funding) for further NASA missions to Mars. Or else it could be a slick way to advertise for the Mars One Mission. I had not heard about this latter mission until I attended a wonderful and informative talk by one of my colleagues, Commerce instructor David Crawford.

At first, I listened incredulously as this seemed the stuff of science fiction movies and novels, but slowly I realized that this was meant for real. The overall plan was to colonize Mars, which is at the same time a running theme of various current films on the big screen. In order to colonize Mars, they needed a number of volunteer astronauts to go to space on a One-Way mission.

Why one way? Well, as travel time is both long and costly, it would save money that way. You can get to Mars, but not come back. David then showed us the criteria used to recruit people from the general population. In terms of characteristics, they were rather on the vague wishy-washy side with sought attributes like resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust, and creativity / resourcefulness.

These are very general characteristics, but it shows also the psychological profile they are targeting. In other words, ability to trust would ensure that the person is not paranoid about intentions or hidden agendas, but has a warm and accepting attitude towards others telling them what to do. Resiliency is a no-brainer as you have to survive and get by with little to no resources (hence also the addendum of creative resourcefulness).

But as I was listening to all of this and thinking that this was a mission of no return, I wondered (and worried) about the psychological profile of somebody willing to undertake such a - to put it less bluntly - suicide mission. Who would be willing to risk their life in order to try to colonize an uninhabitable strange land? What was the pay-off for the individual?

Such thinking is often counter-attacked by those who love adventure and who would like to further their causes of the so-called development or progress of humanity. They claim that such thinking would have hindered the early settlers to explore the Earth and to discover new continents. My response was, yes, but at least we were talking about the same planet, not some mysterious planet far off in space that will most likely pose a number of threats to our physical and psychological well-being.

It boggles my mind that someone in their full sanity would undertake such a mission, no matter how adventurous you may be or this trip may seem. You would probably get candidates who are generally dissatisfied with life or people who are never satisfied with what they have and want something more out of life. Anyhow, there must be some sort of lack that such a mission would fill in their personal or professional lives.

In a video of the selected astronauts, a selection process that by the way does not restrict or discriminate regarding age (basically anyone above 18 in good health was eligible to apply), there were a number of reasons given. Many candidates wanted to make a strong impact; those less modest claimed to be pioneers that advanced the human race. I nod in wonder and disbelief.

Perhaps I love our planet too much; notwithstanding, I have my personal attachment with my family here as well as friends, job and colleagues. I have traveled rather sufficiently across the globe satisfying my curiosity and sense of adventure, but I feel it more important to be grounded on this planet of ours as long as it is possible (despite the future but very tangible threats of global warming and the constant threats of devastating wars). As I have posted previously, I do not subscribe to dying or sacrificing one's life for noble ideas or goals: Is an idea worth dying for?

I do not necessarily disagree with nor am I generally opposed to space missions that will give us a better understanding of our universe and further our knowledge for educational purposes. And in theory, trips to Mars sound exciting, and I have even acquired both a mug and a cap with the Mars One logo on them. The fact that I am keeping up with the news on the issue and that I am watching the films that are churned out on the topic (and this blog post itself) should be evidence for my evident interest in the topic.

But all that aside, what would life be and look like out there? You wake up in a container or a self-sufficient biosphere bubble every day to a red wasteland, you willingly give up all your sources of entertainment (no movies, no smartphone, no computer, no Arash's World!) and you have very limited company. There is no escape, nowhere else to go or run to. What if you do not get along with your fellow travelers? You are stuck with them in deep space.

The other issue would be a lack of food and drink. Astronauts temporarily give up on these pleasures, but they are well aware that this is limited in time and scope. But what if I cannot have good food anymore, or coffee, or God forbid, an occasional glass of red wine? I doubt that vineyards or coffee plantations are ever possible on the red planet.

Will these missions render success? Let us assume they get to Mars safe and sound and manage to get by the daily mental and physical strains and pressures living in a bleak environment. What would be the next step? Sending invitations for friends and family to follow suit and come for a (one-way) visit?

Having children is still not encouraged as the environment is not ideal for the upbringing of babies. But then other questions arise around the needs of our adult colonizers. What to do in case of an emergency? Will there be a doctor on board and a police officer or a lawyer to settle disputes? Will it turn to a space-version of Lord of the Flies? Will it turn into a John Carpenter movie?

There is often a limit and downside to imagination. We may be inspired and dip our heads in the clouds, but should have our feet firmly set in the ground. This mission is the perfect fodder and stuff for the movies. Sure, a Matt Damon Martian may be able to survive, but we have to clear our heads and think straight and decide after all is said and done: Is this really a good idea?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Limits of Embodied Simulation and Piaget's Schemata

Harvard Professor Talk about Concepts
It was that time of the year again for me, time to attend the latest (10th) Quinn Memorial at UBC and to write and reflect on the issues raised. This time around we had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Susan Carey, a Harvard professor, talk about concepts. The title of the talk was “Concept Acquisition: Beyond Logical Construction and the Building Blocks Model.”

Susan Carey was introduced by UBC's Head of the Psychology department Geoff Hall who enumerated all her distinguished awards and accomplishments and summarized her view as one that gave more credit to infants' minds than Piaget had done previously. In fact, her views were also opposing a number of ideas propagated by Locke and Berkeley.

All this sounded interesting and aroused my curiosity. I have often felt that Piaget had generally underestimated the rich and resourceful mind and the mental and other capabilities of children, but it would be much better to actually hear it from someone who was an expert on the matter.

Yet as so often happens, I was disappointed at first. What she was talking about mostly had little to do with what I thought she was going to talk about. In fact, it seemed initially that she was not showing us how children are smarter than we think, but that they, in fact, deceive us!

But first thing first. Susan Carey asked us the simple but poignant question of why understanding can be at times easy and at other times hard. The general view is that we are born with a set of innate primitives. This is basically our knowledge base that can increase its content but not its processing capacity. In other words, we are operating with an 18-month processor.

According to this view, our learning cannot increase our expressive power. Put differently, we are rather limited in terms of learning and understanding new primitives since we have already acquired the necessary linguistic and semantic blueprint, a set that is somewhat set in stone. But Susan Carey disagrees with this view since new primitives can be learned.

She gave us an example of certain migrating birds. They travel over long distances and do so at night. How do they know where to go? Is it based on a set of innate primitives or do they learn and adjust? Or in that specific case, how did the birds know where to go in the dark?

One theory is that they may have used the North Star Polaris. But how did they know which one is the right one to follow as following an erroneous star could take you - or rather the birds - to the wrong place? Also, what is the North Star for us now has not always been so due to the Earth's rotational axis; in fact, about 14,000 years ago, it used to be the star called Vega (and it will become Vega again in 12,000 years or so).

This cannot be information passed on genetically from bird to bird generations. There must be some learning involved, that is the ability to create new primitives. That is when the computational primitives come in. This is not just using your processor, but also making it more powerful through the power of arithmetic.

How does this knowledge happen and does it apply to humans as well or is it simply for the birds? There are two methods we apply to learn about numbers. One of them is the Parallel Individuation Model. This means that we learn and count each number at a time, and see each number as distinct and separate from other numbers.

Yet there is also a process called the Analog Magnitude Model. In this case, we process chunks of information at once and see them more as a comprehensive set rather than as individually different or distinct items. The ability to do this changes with practice, experience, and age, but as a general rule of thumb, we can pay attention to and “hold” 3 or 4 items at a time.

Susan Carey then presented us with a bunch of dots grouped together and asked us to guess how many there were. For lower numbers where less crowding occurred, say 7 or 8 dots, we could make more confident and accurate guesses, but once there were twenty or thirty dots, there was too much noise and distortion, and we would be often wrong in our estimates.

Hence, she was explaining the acquisition of concepts via a mathematical / computational manner. I felt a bit disappointed because I had been more interested in concept-making in terms of language and their representation. Nonetheless, there were interesting bits of information that caught my immediate eye and attention. For instance, there was the surprising fact that children learn numbers at an early age, but they do not “understand” them! In other words, they can count from 1 to 10, but they do not know what that means!

She showed us some videos of experiments done with young children. When they were told to give a certain number of toys and they had awareness of that number, they would do so correctly. However, if they had no knowledge of that number, they would err. For example, a child that does not know anything beyond 3 would grab an indiscriminate amount of toys. They could still “count” up to ten, but did not notice that the number “4” corresponded with the four items in front of them, that is 4 toys put together.

This was very interesting as we often show off the knowledge of our children without awareness of the fact that their counting and these numbers had no tangible relation with the facts and abilities! One child, for example, would comment “Daddy, Mommy, and me” to talk about any items in a set of 3. This shows that she has awareness that the set of 3 corresponds with three, in this case very specific, items.

In a similar way, according to embodied simulation, this is how we learn our first language. We have an image in our head and the spoken or written word is used as an analogy; they are paired and associated with each other using a representational scheme. For example, the word One would be associated with “finger” and that would then lead to a long-term memory of that particular concept, i.e. number.

We often learn concepts and use logic to connect them with others, hence building connections within our mind. But not all learning processes as we have seen is through logic alone. We often use mathematical representations. We know that adding one more to any set increases the number and value of the set by one. 

It may take us a few years to be able to accomplish this feat, but at a certain age we understand it. This then can be expanded and applied to a number of other computations, hence growing and diversifying our capacity to learn. In other words, she has shown us that learning increases over time and is not limited to a set of primitives.

Now if you are slightly confused, you are not alone. As I am wont to do at such events, I looked to personally chat with our presenter Susan Carey for some clarifications. With my red wine in hand, I approached her at the reception and asked her about embodied simulation and Piaget. She gave me an answer that clarified my doubts and confusions.

According to her, embodied simulation is correct but a too simplistic view and account of human learning. We are capable of much more. When a person sees a dog, they do not simply associate the animal with the word “dog,” but concept building goes beyond that. The person makes a wide range of assumptions, such as the fact that there are many of its kind and that this particular animal is different from other animals, say a tiger or a squirrel.

Some of these assumptions may be wrong or mistaken, but they are still part of the inner world that the individual carries around with him or her. We can see that this is not just associating one thing with another à la Piaget, but that children at an early age already make a number of assumptions vis-à-vis what they see. This shows more activity and awareness of the human mind than was previously assumed, and it may not be necessarily limited to humans as animals seem to draw conclusions and notice connections as well.

All this left me inspired. There is more to human learning than meets the eye. I imagined the brain being capable of doing an infinite number of tasks like the endless possible moves on a limited chess board. As this was going through my head and our conversation had reached its end, she surprised me with the following question: Was I a computer scientist?

I admitted I was not. I do not think that watching Mr. Robot would make me a computer expert and my general suspicion regarding technology has always prevented me of embracing technology more than was necessary or pragmatic. 

It was also the first time I had been associated with computer science. Perhaps it was due to my question, which she deemed both relevant and appropriate, or perhaps my look (I think I was wearing a hoodie). Be it as it may, I left this talk feeling slightly more accomplished knowing that I had added to and updated my knowledge base.