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A Little… Photokeeping

So, I suppose my once-a-week promise of reinvigorating this blog never materialized sadly. But as I checked in on a whim yesterday, I noticed that I had comments to respond to, and that according to the site stats, things on Mundi Cogito are still getting attention! So first, I’d like to thank all those who have read (or even consistently read!) this blog. And I offer a special thanks to all those who have contributed to the conversation on any of the issues discussed in Mundi Cogito’s articles.

But I also learned a few things in my hiatus from the blogosphere. Most importantly, I learned about copyright law as it relates to the pictures on this blog.

Now, I love most of the pictures I’ve found to use in these posts, and I’ve credited nearly all of them to their original creators. But, after learning about how this stuff really works in the US, and after hearing about another blogger who used a news source’s picture and was promptly sued, I’ve decided to remove all photos not directly taken by me or taken from the public domain from the site. (Incidentally, this blogger was a 19-year old in Portland who writes news analysis. Sounds hauntingly familiar, no?)

So please bear with me as the pictures on Mundi Cogito disappear. I’m hoping to get more good public domain pictures, as well as taking more pictures myself, but we’ll see how it goes. For today, I regret to inform you that Mundi Cogito will no longer have nearly as many pictures.

On the bright side, this should help speed my writing process! Finding appropriate pictures for a given subject was a surprisingly deep time-sink, and I often found myself not publishing an article for days at a time, due to a lack of related pictures.

And after reading those comments and seeing my site stats, I’ve been encouraged to step back into Mundi Cogito, to bring you the best news analysis, social commentary, spiritual thought, and international discussion that I can offer. Enjoy!

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Sincere Apologies, and Thoughts From a Friend

As my readers may have noticed, my posts have become more and more sporadic; indeed, it’s been more than two weeks since I last published! For this, I apologize. The rush of life, as well as the beginning of new work and (I must admit) the compelling opportunities afforded by the beginning of my summer break from university, have made it all too easy to slack off from Mundi Cogito.

The purpose of this blog, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is to help readers stay informed about current issues and concerns in the world, as well as offer some of my own thoughts and ideas for consideration. This is still what Mundi Cogito is about!

Because life doesn’t seem willing to slow down to let the blog catch up, at least for the moment I’m setting a goal of one post a week. Though I won’t produce nearly as much content as I have in past, having this goal will help me continue to share important ideas and thoughts with the world.

To get back into the swing of things, I’d like to share a story written by my friend Musa Askari (whose blog, Spiritual Human, can be found here) and read by him on Blogtalkradio.com. It’s a wonderful story about lives, the soul, stories, and connection to other people. If you can find the time, please give it a listen!

The show can be found here. Musa’s segment begins right around the nine minute mark. Enjoy!

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What’s Education Coming To?

Whats education coming to? (Source: Fungiftideas.org)

For the past few years, my university has provided a service called the Collegiate Readership Program. The program supplies daily issues of the New York Times and USA Today periodicals, in an effort to keep the student population informed and involved in the world they live in.

But over the past two weeks or so, the number of papers available has been dwindling, down to only a dozen or so in one building on campus. Now, this would be quite understandable if my university had fallen on hard times… but it definitely has not. The school, a fairly small private university in the Pacific Northwest, has had a veritable explosion in attendance numbers; my freshman class is the largest in the school’s history, and next year’s class is expected to be 20% larger than mine. To add to this, the school has a number of well-off benefactors and sponsors for all kinds of programs, and it’s expanding a number of facilities, especially its athletic programs. The school will have a football team (and a brand-new field) by 2013, and is planning two new living halls and a brand-new student union building.

So why the cutback on something as simple as newspapers, when the school is doing so well and expanding so quickly elsewhere?  I think this frustrating evaporation of my favorite newspaper from campus marks a frightening prospect about education as a whole: Many people don’t seem to be at college for an education, and many colleges don’t seem too concerned about providing one.

I see this terrifying trend not just on my campus, but in universities across the States. More and more, young people (I know, I’m a young person too) seem to be choosing their colleges based not on the school’s academic strength or educational opportunities, but on how many bells and whistles are stuck on. Schools are no longer competing for students by showing off their various programs and departments, but are instead improving their entertainment and social offerings: the dances, the sports, the on-campus cafes, and so on.

Essentially, students aren’t choosing their college because of the education that might come out of it; they’re choosing it because it offers them a spot on a team playing their favorite sport, or perhaps because it’s in a lively and entertaining city or area. Quality of education is still a factor in decisions, but it’s typically only one of many. The “college experience” consists not only of education for most young students, but also requires an entertaining campus, a high number of school-sponsored events and games, and a whole host of other needs that should be decidedly secondary to quality of education.

But more worrying is the seeming trajectory of the universities themselves. My school, as well as many others (especially private universities), are getting along quite well, despite this unfortunate economy. Students continue to pour in, as does money. But where is this money going? It doesn’t seem to be furthering the student body’s education nearly as much as it should! Universities’ cash reserves now seem to be less dedicated to the expansion of their educational capacities, and have instead become focused on improving extracurricular offerings, such as sports, gym equipment, and so on. Visit a college campus, and chances are that your tour guide will emphasize the fun things to do in town or around campus, rather than the school’s strong academics.

All of this makes one wonder: How valuable is a modern college education? Are the things learned here likely to lead to a more fruitful life, or will they only give a slightly bumped-up salary? These will be crucial questions in the coming years, including in my own life and university experience. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now, I leave you with a question: Is a university education worth the time and money anymore?

This post was heavily modified on April 25, 2011, after its original publication on April 14, 2011.

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Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare

Fukushima I, the power plant currently in danger of melting down.

Even after all the horrifying destruction Japan has faced over the last few days in the aftermath of a record-setting earthquake and tsunami, the country may have yet another catastrophe on their hands.

A nuclear power plant (NPP) called Fukushima I has been having some major difficulties remaining stable, after the combination of earthquake and tsunami left it badly damaged, and a number of other NPPs have been damaged as well. The government and power company operating the NPP are now saying that there’s a possibility that two reactors are currently melting down, an event which could release great amounts of radiation into the air and water.

It’s still not quite clear at this point (to the best of my knowledge) what the extent of such an accident would be. Experts are saying that the current situation in Japan is already among the top three worst nuclear accidents in the history of nuclear power, along with the events at the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 and the awful disaster that was Chernobyl. But there’s still the possibility of this crisis-waiting-to-happen taking first place for nuclear catastrophes.

Part of the problem here is that the Japanese government has been waffling on the exact state of affairs. The reports given by government officials have vacillated between “it’s only a minor leak to relieve pressure” and “nuclear meltdown is underway.” So it’s been hard to say and see exactly what might be happening, and how severe consequences might be. However, an international security expert said on a fascinating CNN video that the situation is more likely to turn out alright, rather than as a catastrophe (though he doesn’t rule out the chance that a nuclear catastrophe might occur).

The expert posits that the authorities’ tactic for solving the problem is one that would render the NPPs completely and permanently inert. The plan at this point is to flush the reactors with seawater and boric acid. According to the expert in the video, these methods should not only stop the reactors from working temporarily, but completely destroy their ability to produce nuclear energy. A willingness to do something so drastic is a good indicator of the seriousness of this situation. If the government and the power company who runs the plants are willing to suffer the permanent loss of these NPPs, then they must see the possibility of a huge meltdown. It is encouraging though, that the government and the electric company running the plants are willing to take a loss to shut these down.

As I said in a previous post, this situation is still far from resolved. Death tolls are rising dramatically as rescue workers search for the wounded or dead, and the country is tense under the threat of a possible nuclear crisis. All anyone can really do now is offer ny assistance and support they can.

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Devastation in Japan

Unprecedented destruction on the coast of Japan.

On March 11, Japan was struck with disaster. A colossal earthquake, the largest in 1,200 years, rumbled in the Pacific to the east of the island nation. The initial quake and its aftershocks caused great damage throughout the country, but, as often happens, the real catastrophe came with the water.

Tsunami waves have pounded the eastern coast of Japan, leaving as many as 1,000 dead and thousands more missing or unaccounted for, leading authorities to fear that many more casualties are still possible. Oil refineries have exploded, trains have derailed, and countless homes and buildings have been swept away or utterly destroyed by this disaster.

I really find myself at a loss as to what to say about this tragedy. The fact that thousands can be killed and thousands more have their livelihoods destroyed in such a meaningless and horrific disaster is appalling and terrifying. What answer is there for this? What purpose could possibly be behind this kind of calamity? I really can’t claim to know. I have close friends in Japan at this very moment that I haven’t heard from, and Japanese friends here in the US who haven’t been able to contact their own families.

This is still a developing story, so there’s still a lot of uncertainty as to what has really happened and what will happen next. But for now, all I can do is implore anyone reading this to pray for the people of Japan in whatever way they see fit, and offer whatever support and affection they can to any who were affected by this disaster.

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A Life of Simplicity

Maybe there's a simpler side to life.

Our human lives are extraordinary, complex, and truly wondrous things. I don’t just mean this in a biological sense either; the human mind, society, and community is really incredible when you stop and think about it.

But there are so many areas of our lives and so many different ways in which we complicate things! The lives we lead in the modern day are of a much higher standard of living than almost any time or civilization in the past, but the high-speed, large-scale, generally consumerist philosophy of American culture seems to have taught us to constantly want more than we need. The aggressive advertising in today’s world is a natural outcome of a huge corporate entity, which is again a natural outcome of a growing population and economy.

Many of us as Westerners have convinced ourselves that the key to happiness is to fill our lives with every good thing we can find. We want a good house, a good family, a good car, a good job, and of course, the good life we’ve convinced ourselves will come out of all this. But the bar keeps getting higher! Society keeps telling us that we don’t quite have everything we need to be truly happy, so many people have become convinced that once they get one more thing, they’ll be happy. The bar keeps being raised.

Why do we do it this way? Why not find simpler, easier goals for ourselves to achieve, rather than constantly striving to meet society’s ever-rising status quo? Our existence has become laden with all kinds of baggage, baggage about who we should be, what kind of life we should lead, what we should think, say, and do, even what clothes we wear and what food we eat! More importantly, a huge and hugely complex social structure of codes and laws has been formulated and is the basis for so many of the interactions we hold. Many talk to the poor as if they were the dirt under society’s feet, while anyone addressing the president would never dream of doing such a thing.

When you really stop and think about it, almost none of this is inherent in our being as humans. The idea proposed by Locke comes to mind here: When we’re born, each of us is a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Things are “written” and impressed on us from the very moment our mothers give birth to us, as our experiences and the environment around us shapes who we are through our whole lives. Now, I need to interject here by saying that I don’t think we’re born completely blank. People have their own natural preferences, and whether that’s biological, mental, or even somehow spiritual, I can’t claim to know. My point though, is that so much of our perception of the “self” has been passed down and dictated to us by past and present society that we’ve lost a lot of our ability to think outside of those boundaries.

We’re told from the beginning of life that there is a certain way society works and holds together, and that there are certain rules and guidelines of a stable, healthy society that must be followed. For example, many people “naturally” regard a beggar asking for money on the side of the road as a drug-ridden lowlife, someone who has thrown away their life on alcohol and bad decisions. On the other hand, most people would respect a doctor or lawyer implicitly, based solely on their profession. But while going to law or medical school might better equip someone to deal with legal or physiological problems, it does not change the inherent value of a person.

So here’s my challenge: Stop thinking of things in the ways you’ve been taught, or at least exclusively so. Challenge yourself to leave behind your preconceived notions of the world and especially of other people, and strive to lead a simpler, less presupposing life. And finally, make you the self you want to be. Don’t let other people and outside influences exclusively make you who you are. Allow them to challenge your perceptions and ideas, but make your decisions and your life for yourself. If we could all be free from the preconceived notions that have been passed down to us about the world, we could transform ourselves and society from the inside out.

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Taking Out Tenure

The cornerstone of teachers' unions.

As I’ve said in a previous post, teaching is one of the most important and undervalued jobs in America. And because of this, I think it’s extremely important that only the most qualified and talented people are given the opportunity to teach our students, and any teachers who don’t do a good job of educating their students shouldn’t be teaching any longer.

Here’s the problem: tenure. Most of you have probably heard of this. It’s a kind of “teaching insurance” which grants the teacher holding tenure increased protection from being fired. Now, it’s perfectly acceptable to me to afford teachers certain protections from being laid off, especially if the principal has no valid reason to do so. I completely support protection from unfair firing, but the issue with tenure is that it gives too many protections to these teachers, and it often gives extra security to inadequate teachers. To add to this, tenure was originally conceived (first passed in New Jersey in 1909) as a way of preventing firing based on race, sex, or political views.

You see, many teachers are granted tenure after a certain amount of time spent teaching, meaning that the longer the teacher stays employed at the school, the more guarantees he or she has of remaining employed there, regardless of teaching ability. This creates a “last in, first out” policy for lay-offs, in which the newest teachers are the first ones to go, even if they’re better teachers than some of the older veterans. Now, I can understand why seniority should give someone more right to stay with a company or business, but I don’t think this can be appropriately applied to public schools, at least not in this form.

While I haven’t been a public school teacher, with or without tenure, and (as I state in the About the Author section) I have few qualifications to speak about this with absolute authority. But it seems clear to me that with seniority-based tenure in place as a way of deciding which teachers stay and which go, the priority is placed on the teachers, rather than the taught, and I think this is a major issue. America has a duty to focus on getting and keeping the best and brightest teachers, so they can help create the best and brightest students. Especially considering the volatile state of the economy, where the focus is on jobs and who has them, we as a nation need to be willing to let go of ineffective teachers, even if it comes at a high personal cost to them (damn, that sounded a lot harsher than I intended!).

This is one of the (very) few areas I find myself agreeing with Republicans on. A number of GOP governors have begun to take steps to remove or heavily modify tenure in their states, which is something I think we need to see happening more often. This isn’t a partisan issue though; it’s an issue of our nation’s educational system. If we keep hanging on to this relic of teachers’ unions, then we can only expect our students to continue being taught by teachers who have been utterly safeguarded against scrutiny of job performance.

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