What does increased surveillance mean to us?

UPDATE (11/14/2015): In light of the recent terror attacks in Paris, this article just feels more relevant for me to write right now. My thoughts are with all those affected. Stay strong.

Cameras are ubiquitous now, and gone is the assumption that anything we do in public is anything but, well, public. We expect that, if our actions are notable enough, they’ll be tweeted, snapped, instagrammed, blogged, vlogged, and maybe if we have done something particularly shocking and offensive, they’ll make the 24 hour news cycle and we’ll become celebrities for the briefest of moments.

Isn’t this a bit strange? Or is it normal to expect that literally every action we take from outside of the comfort of our homes is potentially a public one?

I’m not sure. What I do know is that it is a reality that we must confront. England now has more CCTVs than anywhere else in the world. The US is not far behind. Nor is China. And while I can’t condone invasions of civil liberties in the name of “security”, I understand why there is a debate about this in the first place. And I refuse to let myself be dis-empowered.

In fact, just as city planners can choose to implement cameras throughout cities, to document the lives of civilians, so to can I empower myself by purchasing a camera of my own.

My weapon of choice…

I have a few different “weapons” in my arsenal to protect against an invasion of my civil liberties. And they are very simple. The first one is encryption. That’s it. While I have nothing to hide, I am a private individual and reserve the right to have private conversations with friends and family while on and off US soil. So I use a version of Marc Cuban’s app Cyberdust for some communications for most communications and can highly recommend it. It’s simple, easy to use, and the content of your messages disappears shortly after you send them.

My other weapon of choice…

Is a GoPro. I’m being filmed. I get it. What happens in public now has the potential, and even the likelihood, to become a permanent part of the public record. With that in mind, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and document things from my perspective while in certain public situations.

Now in case you are wondering, no, I don’t carry a camera around with me at all times. I don’t walk into Sunday Brunch with a camera mounted to my head. I’m paranoid, but I’m not that paranoid :)

However, there are other situations in which I have been very thankful to have a camera on me. The biggest use I have found so far for my Hero4 is as a mounted dashcam. Basically every time I get into the car I set it up as a dashcam, which literally takes 4 second. This serves as an extra layer of protection should I run into any problems while on the streets, and less than a year after adopting this process my GoPro has saved my from at least one costly insurance dispute. What happened is that, while waiting to pull into a parking space, a car backed out directly into me. Rather than quibble over who did what, I simply had to pull out my camera and we could review the footage right then and there.

I’m a big documenter of my life, and arguably an over-sharer on social media. This means that I love carrying my GoPro around with me in my Filson handbag. It’s tiny, so it’s not like it really accounts for any extra baggage. And having it gives me peace of mind, as I know that, if anything were to happen in public that I needed to document, I could pull my cam out then and there.

But a camera isn’t enough

I know that a camera isn’t enough, and I don’t want it to seem as if I’m responded to a government over-reach with a kneejerk purchase of {insert trendy consumer electronic here}. A camera isn’t enough. Encryption isn’t enough. What we need to do every day is remind ourselves that freedom of speech is absolute and so is our right to privacy. One-time education isn’t enough. What we need to combat a growing surveillance state is a growing awareness of our rights as Americans and citizens of the world.

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Are Americans over-medicated? Of course.

On the heels of this disturbing article by the New York Times, it’s worth examining whether Americans are over-medicated and if so, what the extent of the problem is. Western Medicine has been said to treat only the symptoms of a disease, but not it’s under-lying causes, and this is reflected in the drugs that are prescribed by western physicians. For example, the prescription of pain medication has increased nearly 400% over the past two decades. And while opiates like Oxycontin are essential for a small number of people, they are simply over-prescribed. And while Oxycontin itself is harmful, it is particularly insidious as it eventually leads to heroin addiction for those unfortunate “graduates” of the drug.

Eastern Medicine, on the other hand, is designed to address the causes of disease and ailments rather than the symptoms. Many argue that this is the better way to approach the treatment of disease and discomfort in modern human beings.

Of this, I’m not qualified to make a value call, but I can offer some opinions on the state of medicine and supplements in American society.

I believe that the reason for the dependence that Americans have on medication comes down to a few socio-cultural factors. For one, we are an overworked society, and this trend is showing no signs of ending. In fact, since the 1970s Americans have worked an increasing number of hours per year. The average American today works 8% more today than they they did in 1980.

In response to increased workplace pressure, people turn to substances in an effort to self-medicate.

When you should try to solve the problem naturally…

Now, of course there are times when a doctor would recommend that you turn to a substance in an effort to solve your problem, but the truth is that people move prematurely to this solution far to regularly. Some common ailments that result from the stress of modern American life and which can often be solved by natural solutions are:

  • Insomnia- Consider using something like melatonin to help yourself sleep before turning to a more powerful substance like Ambien, which has been shown to correlate with cancer.
  • Anxiety- If you are feeling anxious on a regular basis, consider why this might be. Sometimes nervousness and anxiety result for physiological reasons, but oftentimes simple lifestyle changes, like drinking less coffee and/or alcohol, can have the desired impact.
  • Weight loss- Don’t jump to a liposuction or even an over the counter supplement before you try dieting (under your doctor’s supervision of course). Remember that only a few years ephedra used to be legal!

When you might consider a supplement…

Is this to say that all medicine is bad? No, absoutely not. In fact, I depend on various vitamins and supplements for my productivity. Luckily my health is such that I don’t need to rely on any serious medications, but I do take a number of supplements that I can recommend. Firstly, you might want to check out products like Alpha Brain, an all-natural supplement that has been proven to improve cognitive functioning. As an extra fun fact, the company that manufactures Alpha Brain, Onnit, was founded by Joe Rogan.

Staying healthy with the American lifestyle…

While America has the second highest rate of obesity in the modern world (now second to Australia) and a high-stress society, it is also one of the most progressive societies in the world when it comes to health and weight loss. Most major dietary trends can be traced back to their roots in the US (often in California), and while junky fast food options abound, so do a variety of healthy options.

In a way, the challenge of modern America is the same challenge that the rest of the globalized world is starting to face- with EVERY option available to us, how do we make the right decisions consistently? I don’t have a single answer to that, but I do have a framework I like to apply to decision-making in my work at a thinktank as well as in my daily life. I’ll share it in my next post.

Until then, stay safe and healthy.

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Sleep walking into a Third World War?

“When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”

This old liberal saying, going back almost a century, has sadly been either forgotten or ignored by most politicians of our age. After several decades of relatively free trade, interdependence between countries has grown like never before. This growth has been coupled by a decline in warfare between them, something a liberal would undoubtedly form into a causal relationship. Though this sometimes leads to the risk of determinism and over-simplification, the idea behind it is still a powerful and accurate one. I would not fight with someone upon whom I depend for my daily requirements, and even if I did I would not take it to a point where reconciliation becomes impossible; in short, in the lingo of politics, I would not declare war on them.

Ignorance of this great piece of liberal wisdom could bring the world to the brink of war, and unfortunately it seems to be doing just that. The Cold War remained ‘cold’ not only because both sides possessed nuclear weapons capable of causing mutually assured destruction, but also for the simple reason that they depended too much on each other. Countries in both the blocs still traded with each other, creating a scenario where the superpowers found it increasingly difficult to rely upon potential allies. Similar scenarios have prevented war on several occasions. But today, with competition at its highest between China and the USA, the wisdom of liberalism is being scrapped for more aggressive policies designed to downgrade rival power.

Chief among these attempts are the immense international trade deals planned by the two powers. The Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP) envisaged by the United States deliberately leaves out the biggest economy in Asia, it’s adversary China. The exclusion of China, at first sight, seems to be a brilliant strategy of containment as bolstering up the economies of the neighbouring countries would, according to US policy makers, deter China from aggressive moves. Reality, however, seems to be far from it. The Chinese are, on the contrary, more aggressive than ever and have started flexing their muscles in the region. As the TPP talks progress, so too does China’s pugnacious behaviour. It has become much more ready to violate existing territorial boundaries, moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters with an alacrity which left US think-tanks shocked beyond measure. The problem arises from the fact that as the prospects of trade between China and its neighbouring countries diminish, as it inevitably will thanks to the TPP’s exclusionary feature, the interdependence between China and these countries will start to erode. Once this happens, and reaches a certain extent, China may no longer have second-thoughts about declaring war on them. This is not to say that a decline in interdependence will lead directly to war; it won’t. But it surely makes the international situation more susceptible to war; a single spark could spell doom for millions.

But the ill-effects of such exclusion wouldn’t stop there. China, at present, depends heavily on these countries as they provide immense markets for exports. A threat to these could propel it to take a more aggressive stance or try to combat US plans with strategies of its own. China has already started increasing trade initiatives with other Asian countries, and has developed grand plans for the future. The New Silk Road, announced by its president in November 2014, attempts to boost trade and development across the entire Eurasian landmass and also encompasses Africa. Perhaps as a reaction to the TPP, this plan excludes the US. If this sort of economic warfare were to continue and, in all likeliness, intensify then military warfare wouldn’t be too far behind.

The two countries depend greatly on each other today and are major trade partners. The prospects of war seem slim in the near future perhaps because of this great interdependence. But were the two powers to reduce this and instead seek out exclusionary economic spheres of their own, a war could very well be precipitated. The old liberal adage has value in it; heeding it could save us another destructive century.

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The Cradle and Grave of Nations

Starting from Hitler, or perhaps even before that, all potential invaders have used a strategy very well-suited to the modern world. The novelty of it is perhaps what led Europe to slip into appeasement, a term much ridiculed these days but considered to be the very foundation of a moral foreign policy in the inter-war years. Unfortunately for the peace-loving, and to the great delight of warmongers, though the term has come under great scrutiny, the guiding though vague principle behind it serves as the very foundation of the modern state. It is a principle that has contributed as much to the cradles of nations as it has to their graves. The principle, when put into a verbal construct, transmogrifies into a term familiar with almost everyone- nationalism.

The term, nationalism, is as familiar to people as it’s principle is unfamiliar. Go to a post-colonial African country and ask two different people what they base their nationalism upon. The chances of getting two wholly divergent answers is very high; higher still is the chance of not receiving a proper answer at all. For the nationalism of today is, in fact, based upon a principle that was introduced formally into world affairs after the First World War- self-determination for people based on ethnic and linguistic ties. It is for this reason that the relatively new states in Africa, created not by ethnic or linguistic ties, but by a couple of diplomats in a room in Berlin, have such tumultuous political situations with military dictatorships being the norm. Without this principle to cement their nation, they have a very high potential to simply crumble.

But while the absence of this principle can cause intra-state tensions, the presence of it has caused innumerable inter-state tensions, culminating in the deadliest war mankind has witnessed till date. Following World War One, the victors, happily adopting Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, used it to breakup Germany and Austria-Hungary into several smaller states. What they ignored at the time, and what German’s were made acutely aware of by Hitler’s fulminations against Versailles, was that the states carved out from German territory had a significant quantity of Germans. Once in power, Hitler used the same principle the victors had buoyed up to gobble up one state after the other, always on the pretext that he was uniting Germans under a single state. One after the other, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland came under the dark shroud of Nazi tyranny. It was, in fact, the attempt to take Danzig, a mainly German-inhabited area, from Poland that precipitated the Second World War.

What’s frightening is that evidence points to a possibility of war having been averted if Hitler had waited for a while longer before he made the Danzig demand, taking some time before that to digest his Czechoslav acquisitions. To the people of the world then, Hitler wasn’t seen as a menace. In fact, he was seen as a rightful leader in the same countries that stood up against him due to his attempts to unite the German people. Sadly, such scenarios are even more likely in our world today. With Russia now a resurgent power and jingoistic nationalism on the rise, the dangers of such nationalism must be recognized. Putin has already used this strategy to conquer part of Ukraine, on the pretexts that Russians there were having their rights violated, and has used this principle to stoke up tensions in Eastern Ukraine. What’s to say that other countries with sizable populations in weaker neighbouring countries won’t resort to similar techniques? With the ease of transportation today, it’s even conceivable that a country may even try to create such an opportunity than simply making use of it; in other words a country create policies which deliberately create sizable populations of its ethnic majority in other countries. Then it could cook up an excuse, similar to the one used by Hitler before he invaded Czechoslovakia, that the rights of it’s people are being violated. It could stoke up some fervour among these populations thereafter, and the protests would soon be followed by tanks.

Such is the vulnerability of weaker states though. The only balancing factor appears to be the hegemonic power of the US. But with that now on a relative decline, the world might be heading blindly towards a replication of the catastrophe it witnessed a century ago.

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