Putting Stress in Context

I am currently sitting in the university library stressing over an exam I have to sit tomorrow.  In fact, here is proof:

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As I quiver behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature which will lend me no aid tomorrow, and I ponder writing a blog post for the sole purpose of procrastination, I remember the importance of putting into context every stress we face.  This can be done on varying levels.  The most simple, of course, is to convince yourself that your life will continue regardless of the result of the exam.  If I fail tomorrow’s exam I have the possibility of a re-sit.  I’m only in first year so it won’t go towards my final degree.  Even if all fails and I’m forced to drop out of university, I still have my health, my family, my friends, and the opportunity to find employment elsewhere.  And on a deeper level I often remember how tiny a spec I am, inhabiting a marginally larger spec that orbits a still undeniably small spec, unobservable to the mast majority of the known universe.  On this tiny spec alone there are 7 billion people who couldn’t care less whether I pass tomorrow’s exam.

Even on another level, however, I’ve managed to put this stress into perspective, though in a way more difficult to describe.  I stood in front of a mirror yesterday gazing at my face for a number of minutes (yes, this is going somewhere).  In my sleep-deprived state I happened to notice how peculiar many parts of it looked – in particular the eyes.  Maybe it’s just me and my aversion to making eye contact but I’ve never noticed quite how intricate the eye is.  Patterns streak across the iris in a rich array of colours, hazel-blue in my case, like a fiery aurora.  The pupil floats in the centre, a perfect featureless circle showing only my own reflection back through the mirror.  My wonder did not cease here; I noticed, as my eyes twitched to and from the light, the pupil dilating inwards and outwards.  Eager to test this further I shined a torch onto and off the side of my face in slow succession, watching the pupil instinctively react.  It did this like the focusing of a camera lens in a process I could not feel or sense.

What this showed me, beyond a worrying sign of my own vanity, was how amazing it is simple to live.  To be this incredible biological wonder I don’t really understand or even particularly consider on a daily basis.  We’re so absorbed by everyday obsessions – be they work, taxes, socialising, politics and, of course, exams – that I don’t think many people besides biologists and children realise this.  Whatever happens in my exam tomorrow, my mere existence is a true marvel.  This isn’t an excuse to be devoid of motivation or ambition by any means, but I really believe it’s healthy to keep these things in mind.

Okay, stress-fuelled philosophical rambling over.  Back to the textbooks…

Copyright: What Counts As ‘Fair Use’?

I’ve increasingly been growing concerned about the use of copyrighted content on my blog.  I’ve always shrugged it off in the past as being harmless since I don’t make a profit, however after reading this post by someone who had court action taken against them for using a copyrighted image I reconsidered this policy.  I’ve subsequently taken off any images that I think might violate copyright laws but there are a few areas where it’s difficult to call.  There is a thing called ‘fair use’ which allows the reproduction of copyrighted content for education purposes, reviews and news reporting.  The problem is that this ‘fair use’ allowance is vague at best, and only really tends to be decided by a judge’s ruling at the end of a law battle; not the route I would prefer to take!  I’ve done some research and compiled a list of instances where copyright violation might take place:

Using someone else’s photo or artwork.
This is a fairly simple breach of copyright if you haven’t obtained the owner’s permission.  Contrary to what’s often believed, pictures from Google Images and Wikipedia cannot be used on your own website or blog without permission.  There are places where you can acquire free-to-use images, however, including Wikimedia Commons.

Content from news stories.
I think that, given the source is credited, we’re free to quote from newspaper articles or interviews.  This does not apply to images, which are covered by copyright laws to protect photographic journalists ‘on the ground’.

Astronomical photos.
No idea about this, but I’ve kept various pictures of the Earth and Mars I have on this blog because there are few people likely to have ownership of such images and I can’t see the various space exploration agencies taking action against a blog which promotes interest in what they do.

Books, Films and TV shows.
This is the biggest grey area.  I’ve taken down all pictures, posters and covers on my reviews and literary analyses on the blog, but some of this really felt unecessary.  ‘Fair use’ does give a passing mention to the use of small extracts from copyrighted work so long as there is either a review or criticism published alongside it, but there’s no blanket policy towards what is acceptable.  From a moral standpoint I see zero problem with using copyrighted images in this way because only a fraction of the content is being reproduced and it will only increase publicity for the creative work – but because copyright law is so vague I really don’t know where we stand with this.

As a writer, I really do appreciate the need to protect the creative work people produce.  But we need a more coherent and understood set of rules to determine when using copyrighted material is and is not acceptable.  Instances of ‘fair use’ need to be set out in stone rather than have vague guidelines written into law to be interpreted at a judge’s discretion.  Perhaps there even needs to be international agreement on this, as I believe copyright laws vary from country to country (which in a borderless entity such as the internet makes things infinitely more confusing).  And certainly, I don’t think small bloggers should have hefty lawsuits taken against them as a result of their ignorance, unless they refuse to comply with the copyright holder’s demands.

Economic Depression and Authoritarianism (Musing)

Just been musing, as one does, on the current trend in the world towards authoritarianism.  Of instability and the rise of the far-right in Europe, of defeats for freedom in Russia, Egypt, Syria, Mali, Iran, and increasing authoritarianism in countries like Venezuela, Ukraine, Turkey. I don’t know, perhaps reading this article* has just left me particularly gloomy, but there seems a tough fight ahead for democracy around the country.  I vaguely wrote about this earlier this year.  And I was wondering – this is just me musing – how much of a link there could be between economic depression and increasing authoritarianism in countries. I think there is an undeniable link between economic problems and a growth in right-wing movements, as cultural tensions increase and immigration becomes more unpopular.  But is there a link with the behaviour of the governments which are actually in power?

If we look at history, the best example would be the Great Depression in the early 1930s.  I’ve only studied Germany in great detail, but I know that the economic crisis Germany faced was a significant, if not the major reason the Nazis came into power.  They were able to exploit distrust in official establishments, offer a solution, offer hope.  Of course other factors were also important, and perhaps crucial, such as the aftermath of the First World War, Germany’s newness to democracy, etc.  However, I would presume that the growth of fascism elsewhere was also at least partly linked to the Great Depression.

If we assume that there is a link between economic depression and authoritarianism – or even just say that democracy struggles in these conditions – then we can at least agree that the impact now is less than in the 1930s.  I often remind myself of this if the world ever seems particularly hopeless – it was even worse back then, but we got through it.

Another significant reason there’s been an increase of authoritarianism that’s worth noting, in my view, is the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Dictatorships around the world have released how real and present a threat their own people pose to them and have consequently taken action to further oppress their people.  Davies’ J Curve suggest that the most stable states are either democratic or totalitarian, so these dictatorships have taken the route of further oppression to stay in power.  This does not mean that democracy is weakening but that it is growing strong enough to absolutely terrify the few remaining dictators.  Of course, the Arab Spring was arguably a result of economic stagnation across the Middle East and North Africa, so there could be another link with economic depression.

As I said, these are just musings – I’m sure there are probably quite a few flaws in my arguments.

*That article really makes you loath Putin, doesn’t it?

Death on Mars

As far as we are aware, no organism has ever lived or died on our red neighbour, Mars.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge of fossilised bacteria hidden within Martian rock.  There is indisputable proof that water once flowed freely on the surface after all, which is one prerequisite for life as we currently understand it.  Some scientists have even suggested life could exist today in underground, water-filled caverns, though I’m not sure how likely this is.  Whatever the truth, nobody has doubted that Mars’ oxygen-less, atmosphere-limited, distant surface would be an easy place to live, but this hasn’t deterred humanity’s persistent dream of one day walking on the red planet.

The Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery, on the other hand, might do just that.  Apparently the level of radiation potential astronauts would endure in both traveling and settling on Mars are far beyond what is considered safe for a human to experience.  Here are some figures, taken from the BBC (measure in millisievert, the unit of equivalent radiation dose):

  •  Annual average: 2.7mSv
  • Whole body CT Scan: 10mSv
  • 6 months on the International Space Station: 100mSv
  • Traveling to and from Mars (excluding time spent on planet): 660mSv

For the average human in a developed country exposed to 2.7mSv a year (so perhaps just over 200mSv in a lifetime), the chances of developing a cancer are around 1 in 4.  If I understand this correctly, this makes the chances of developing a cancer after traveling to Mars far greater than ought to be acceptable.

This, understandably, poses huge problems for the future of space exploration.  It’s incredible that such a haven for life could ever develop on the Earth considering how many dangers exist to us outside of the planet.  While I think some scientists are still optimistic, I find these figures very depressing.  They serve to remind me that the Earth is not a cradle, but a prison.  We are trapped here for each of our tiny lives until the prison walls break down and then even here won’t be inhabitable – once the solar flares beam down, or the surface becomes irradiated by ultra-violet light, or a stray piece of rock slams into us, or…

Mars is a world of death and Earth a world of life.  But Earth is defying the norm of the Universe – how long before it joins Mars?  It’s as if the Universe were designed with the strict intention of making life impossible.

Related articles:

Is the News Bad for You?

I came across this infuriating article a week or so ago, and have been meaning to write a response to it, but lost track of priorities and it slipped back.  In the article, the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli makes his case that exposure to the news is harmful for us in a variety of ways.  He gives 10 reasons as to why he believes this:

News is misleading.
Dobelli uses a variety of examples to expand on this point, some of which, I agree, may be valid.  The first, of how the news would distort a story of a bridge collapse involving a car, is incredibly generalised, and any important issues – like the general structural safety of bridges – would be marginalised.  Sure, The Daily Mail would spew forth some headline like “BENEFIT SCROUNGER IN BRIDGE TRAGEDY, 12 CHILDREN ORPHANED” or whatever, but one would hope a more decent source of news, like The BBC or The Independent, would look into the wider issue at hand – in addition to reporting the tragedy itself.

I do agree that news causes us to have the ‘wrong risk map’; that news can make us overemphasise the threat of terrorism, etc.  But this isn’t the fault of the news.  What should news organisations do?  Not report it?  Or is it better for individuals, having abandoned the news, to simply not know about terrorist attacks?  Is our potential lack of ability to contextualis news stories really a convincing reason to deprive ourselves of information?

“We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.”

That’s rather a condescending statement.  Some people may base their decisions on stories they see, but I would like to think most people would reason whether there would be an effect on their own lives.  Once again, is the solution to “cut yourself off from news consumption entirely” really any better?  I’d rather make a flawed judgement based on information than a flawed judgement blind.  I’m not keen on following advice which begins by doubting my reasoning abilities, but perhaps that’s just me.

News is irrelevant.
This is a huge bugbear of mine.  Oh so often, I’ll be raving something along the lines of, “Hey, guys, France now has a Socialist President!” or “Did you hear about the Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery?!”  More often than not, I’ll be received by glazed looks and some comment as to why I care.  I’ve even had the “it doesn’t affect you” spiel before.  My response is: if we go through life only ever taking notice of things which affect us directly, we would live in a very self-absorbed and greed-filled society indeed.  Alright, perhaps the Venezuelan election really doesn’t matter, but I think it is worth knowing how people in the rest of the world live.  If we don’t have information, or worse, if we don’t care, how can we be expected to engage in the letter-writing campaigns, petitions and donations which increasingly have a positive impact for millions across the world.

Say an earthquake happens to strike San Francisco, which is predicted to happen one day again in the future.  There are many casualties, and there is a desperate appeal for donations to help with aid.  If people didn’t read anything irrelevant, they would have no way of knowing what was going on.  I can somewhat agree with Dobelli in regard to the majority of crass ‘human interest’ stories – the type you would find in tabloids – but, to be honest, I rarely define these as news anyway.

News has no explanatory power
I am becoming ever more certain than Dobelli has had particularly bad experiences with the news.  If you ever watch a good documentary on Al Jazeera, or, say, on the BBC’s Panorama, or even manage to get past the first few pages of most decent newspapers, you’ll find layer upon layer of analysis and discussion.  I can see his point when it comes to slow, hidden movements, but even these are often newsworthy; demographic changes, updated opinion polls, changing employment patterns and environmental studies, to name a few, are very often in the news.

News is toxic for your body.

“It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.”

Uh.  I’ll take his word for that one.  I personally find learning new bits of information quite relaxing, but I appreciate I may be in the majority for that one.

News increases cognitive errors.
Basically, this point says that we look at news from the perspective of our pre-conceived biases, and interpret stories in such a way.  This is true, I must admit.  Reading news about a study into the failings of wind power won’t dash my enthusiasm for renewable energy; I’d simply brush it off as flawed.  But this isn’t true in every occasion.  If someone I have a lot of respect for, like Al Gore or Caroline Lucas, were to dismiss a section of renewable energy – or even just particularly damning statistics – I’m sure I would allow my beliefs to be challenged.

News inhibits thinking.
In the age of Twitter and soundbites, there may also be a point to this one.  “News is an intentional interruption system.”  Does it limit our patience for long, spanning articles?  This must vary from person to person, and I can only talk about myself; I’m a big user of Twitter and I tend to read lots of articles in short spans, but this doesn’t stop me being able to read and learn from long, spanning essays.

News works like a drug.
This is true for me; I am addicted to information.  I’m proud of this fact.  But to claim that “most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books” is a massive, unproven and, frankly, ridiculous generalisation.  In today’s globalised world, virtually everyone is a news consumer.  Does this mean virtually everyone struggles to read long articles and books?  Of course not!

News wastes time.
I have already determined that news is both worthwhile and relevant, so therefore I reject the idea that gaining information is ever a waste of time.  Like anything else in life, it’s about balance.

News makes us passive.
Fair enough, news can depress us and make us feel helpless.  On the other hand, we can feel spurned into action.  This also depends on the type of person you are.

News kills creativity.
As a writer, who is currently experiencing a deficit of creativity, this did make me pause, but I soon realised this is far more likely to be due to current school stresses than my reading of the news; my creativity flourishes during holidays.  Thing is, he claims to know nobody who reads the news and is also creative, whereas I know plenty of people who do and are both.  We evidently inhabit very different spheres.