Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week 5: Haiti.

Distribution Source: Google Video, YouTube, CBS, Al Jazeera, FOX, ABC
Content Source: Eunide Alexandre Television, CBS, Al Jazeera, FOX, ABC, Noam Chomksy
Format: Video
Length (Combined): 57 minutes
Voice of Haiti: History
Haiti's History of Struggle
Haiti's History of Hardship
Haiti's Troubled History
Noam Chomsky on Haiti
Haiti's Political History
History of US Aid to Haiti

This week's topic came from my girlfriend, who told me I should write about Haiti - not about the crisis, but how it became one of the poorest countries in the world. I thought this was a great idea, and am extremely glad I listened to her. This week, I will try to give you the succinct story of Haiti (or as much of it as I could understand from only an hour of videos).

To summarize everything that is to follow: over the past few hundred years, the Haitians have gotten a terrible deal. It's also clear that Haiti is inextricably linked - culturally, politically, and economically - to the US and to Western Europe.

The known history of Haiti, dating back to 1492 (the year Columbus "discovered" America and Hispaniola), consists of multiple world powers occupying and exploiting the country. The native Taínos ruled the island prior to the Spaniards claiming the island of Hispaniola. The story that follows mirrors other Conquistador victories - the Taínos were subjugated and forced to mine gold (of which Haiti and the Dominican Republic had a lot) or be killed. Disease also killed much of the Taíno population. In spite of the decimation of the Taíno population, due to mining and agriculture, Hispaniola was the most valuable land on the earth for almost a century.

Over time, the Spaniards realized that larger and more reliable mines could be found on the mainland, and largely withdrew from Hispaniola. Soon after, the French settled on the island. In 1697, the French and Spanish agreed to split up the land, with the Spanish keeping the eastern two-thirds of the island(now the Dominican Republic), while the French controlled the western third (modern-day Haiti). The addition of the French created an even more complicated racial and ethnic mix in Haiti, which already consisted of African slaves, Taíno natives, and Spaniards. The Haitian Creole language and culture followed. Religiously, Haiti was also unconventional, the result of an eclectic blend of Taíno spirituality, African voo-doo, and Roman Catholicism.

In the late 18th century, something amazing (and ironic) happened. Inspired by the egalitarian slogan of the French Revolution, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité," the Haitians revolted against their French rulers. Napoleon sent tens of thousands of his battle-hardened troops to crush the Haitians and their leader, Toussaint l'Ouverture. Incredibly, the French could not defeat the Haitians. In 1804, Haiti declared its freedom, thereby becoming the first independent nation in Latin America and the first black-led republic in history (I recognize the western-centric use/notion of "republic" here). In 1809, there was a large creole exodus to New Orleans, doubling the population of the city.

Unfortunately for Haiti, while it had triumphed in a military sense against the French, it was unable to do so economically - France forced massive indemnification payments on the country, for "profits lost from the slave trade." A French abolitionist later pointed out how ridiculous these payments were: "Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood." These debt payments took Haiti over 120 years to pay back and started a cycle of debt, dependence, and instability.

The newly independent country suffered from multiple coups (in its 200 years, Haiti has had 32 coups), and generally did not have the resources to build strong institutions that would allow an economy to grow. In 1915, US Marines occupied Haiti, citing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed the US to intervene in Caribbean economies if they were unable to pay their international debts (in Haiti's case, to France). It was also a direct effort to eliminate German economic interests in Haiti, making Haiti a derivative battle of World War I. In other words, Haiti's morally illegitimate international debts to France served as the precept for the US to occupy the nation and use it as a pawn in a global war. The US kept a military presence in Haiti until 1933; there were meaningful infrastructure projects undertaken, but throughout the entire period (and almost the entire 20th century) Haiti was ruled by dictators who routinely murdered and stole from the populace.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Haiti had any kind of representative government; the first truly democratic elections were in 1990, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected President. Within nine months he was overthrown in a coup and replaced by a thug. President Clinton successfully negotiated his reinstatement in 1994, but did so on the condition that Aristide implement his opponent's free trade policies. Haiti dropped its internal agricultural subsidies, and was flooded with cheaper international food. As a result, farmers migrated into Port Au Prince, which had became a city of a million people that by most estimates should hold only 40,000. More recently, Aristide was thrown out in 2004 in yet another coup; during this year Haiti was also ravaged by massive floods. In 2008, food riots plagued the country after four major hurricanes hit the island, inflicting over $1B in damage.

By now it should be clear that there is a major, complex problem facing Haiti's development. I am extremely disheartened by the failures of what we assume to be the best natural solution: foreign aid. Foreign aid figures to Haiti have been well-documented in recent history: $3B of US taxpayer funds have gone into the country since 1992, and $600MM per year in international donations have gone to the country. For a country with an annual GDP of $6B, this is significant. Most staggering to me, though, is sheer the number of international aid organizations operating in Haiti. For a country with 10 million people, I would have guessed between 100-1,000 organizations were operable. I was SHOCKED to learn that 10,000 aid organizations have on-the-ground operations in Haiti... in other words, one aid organization for every 1,000 people. How is this what's best for Haiti? Think of the overhead costs associated with installing so many different groups on the ground. Wouldn't it be better for these funds to go through fewer, more efficient groups? Alternatively, could this be a reflection of a failed NGO model? I'm reminded of the African official who, when asked what the UN could do for Africa made a heartfelt plea to please "leave us alone and do nothing."

In some ways, this is a moot point, because everything about Haitian aid and development has and will continue to change following the devastating earthquake. My hope is that going forward, the solutions implemented are those that empower individual Haitians to improve their own situation, as l'Ouverture and his army did against Napoleon. Otherwise Haitians will just be getting another raw deal.

Inventory of Free, Educational Video Sites

While searching for this week's topic, I came across this link:'s inventory of free, web-based video sources

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Week 4: The Climategate Controversy

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT World: Distributed Intelligence)
Format: Video
Length: 1 hour, 58 minutes, 31 seconds

This week's topic is the Climategate Controversy. "Climategate" refers to the November 2009 hacking of a University of East Anglia server and subsequent release of over 1,000 emails between climate scientists. Many of these emails appear to reveal scientists from the Climate Research Unit (University of East Anglia) and Penn State University behaving unethically - from suggesting data be altered to strategizing over how to keep the work of scientists who are skeptical of anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) global warming out of certain peer reviewed journals.

But if this were just an issue of two or three scientists behaving immorally for their own selfish purposes, it would not be worthy of the international attention it has received. Rather, this represents an important inflection between science and politics, on a global scale. It also represents an issue - global warming (or, the more politically correct name: climate change) - in which many different, often combative sides have entrenched interests (think developing vs. developed world, Democrats vs. Republicans, industrialists vs. environmentalists, just to name a few...).

This post is not about the science behind global warming - I'd embarrass myself even attempting to frame the debate properly. What I do know is that I've tried many times in good faith to understand the issue, and what the science says about the issue. In most cases, with nothing more than an internet connection, some critical thinking and a free afternoon, this is not exceedingly difficult. But with global warming, I've found the task tedious, in large part due the blatant propaganda from all sides. This fact alone is instructive as to the political backdrop of the issue. As I've researched this week's topic, it has become clear to me that science has to some degree taken a back seat to strong efforts on both sides to manipulate the climate change issue for political gain. Indeed, the fact that we discuss this in terms of "sides" shows how polarizing this has become (what with believers, nonbelievers, and the future of the earth in play), and how far we've gotten from rational, intelligent debate on what I think is the important, underlying question: is the world screwed and if so what can we do about it?

In the United States, it seems that the climate change debate has roughly fallen along partisan lines, with each side giving its followers an easy story. Democrats play the oh-so-certain side, safely dismissing any doubter of the veracity of anthropogenic climate change as an idiot (at the dinner party: "oh yes, dear, the poor thing, he doesn't even believe in global warming"). Meanwhile Republicans have embraced the "skeptic" terminology to represent their supposed healthy scientific questioning of the issue (on a freezing cold day: "it's -25 degrees today, yep, must be global warming!"). In other words, just like the health care debate quickly fell to an argument over death panels, the climate change debate has also regressed to lowest common denominator, politically expedient discourse.

But let's bring it back to Climategate. Why should we care? Some scientists wrote some nasty things about each other, maybe tried to change a temperature database, and discussed keeping contradictory work from being published. My first question was: what were the actual effects of this scandal? I particularly liked the approach of Ron Prinn (Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT) - he posed six questions to himself about Climategate:

1) Are some of these emails unprofessional? His answer: Yes.

2) Were the scientists involved successful in preventing journal publications? His answer: No. Not successful.

3) Was the research done by scientists in question critical for the case for anthropogenic climate changes? (my note: the way I understand it, the integrity of one of the major client science databases is now tainted, and the question becomes: is the scientific consensus in tact ex-this database and its associated work) His answer: There are many different data sets and analyses; in short, these scientists aren't the only group doing this. The body of evidence supporting that climate change is anthropogenic is robust, and the risk is, in his mind, high (there is no other planet to retreat to).

4) Has the integrity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change been compromised? His answer: No. Yes, these scientists were involved with the IPCC, and the IPCC is the most important single input to international climate policy. However, in his experience publishing through the IPCC, it was a thorough, honest process, and he thinks hijacking the IPCC by a small group is simply not possible.

5) Is public perception of climate science affected? His answer: Yes. Media's ability to analyze hard science is diminishing, particularly as news sources continue cutting science writers. Moreover, the emails contained juicy soundbites for story writers and therefore gained a larger audience.

6) Can we do better as client scientists? His answer: We need to step back and move away from a knee-jerk tendency for polarization. The almost religious "Believers vs. Nonbelievers" framework needs to be moved away from. We need mutual respect and communication tools, not just on our conclusions but on our process as well.

Through this lense, it seems to me that the actual results of the Climategate scandal - from a climate science perspective - are not nearly as damaging as they have been made out to be. This is not to say they haven't had a meaningful impact on public discourse - the headlines surely provided fodder for those on one side of the political war. And let's be clear, this is a political war; the event was no accident - someone with a vested interest in the outcome hacked into a server, stole information, and released it to coincide with the largest international climate summit (December 2009, Copenhagen) since Kyoto.

But in my view, one major positive of Climategate is the opportunity it has provided us laypeople to think about how science and politics are married on this important issue. On the video panel, Judy Layzer, a Professor of Political Sciences at MIT and Government at Harvard, walked us through this intersection of the vastly different worlds of science and politics. Most people have a rational view of policy making - that is, the more we know about a problem the more we should be able to solve it. But that is simply not how it works.

Science is about assessing theories and advancing our understanding of the world in which we live, a process that is never complete, never certain, and always skeptical. She contrasts this with science-based policy decisions, in which people have to act in the very near-term on imperfect information. She points out that what we are asking of scientists in this situation isn't science at all. It is regulatory science, and regulatory science is inherently uncertain. And so scientists are asked to make assumptions, and assumptions are based on their values. Once we have assumptions based on values, we have moved from pure science into some other realm.

And from the purely political side of the equation, she says policy making is not at all linear - in other words we are never choosing the "best" from an array of options. Rather, there are many advocates - each with its own ideology, interests, and funding source - competing for the right to define a problem and therefore be able to give the solution. She goes on to say that, unfortunately, in many cases the underlying science has no impact on policy - it has to be woven into a political story to make a difference.

In climate change, environmental skeptics have learned the political game and know that discrediting the science is very important. Spinning the issues is not at all difficult - whether creating and using words like "Climategate" that conjure up previous scandals or simply discrediting scientists' models. Professor Layzer notes that a major problem is that scientists are not equipped to deal with such political attacks. Scientists are traditionally reserved in their language and the way in which they present arguments and conclusions. But when faced with a politicized opposition, they want to react. Imagine being a climatologist who has studied meticulously the issue of global warming and come to the independent conclusion that it is a major problem for the planet, your children, and the human race. Now imagine your valid work being discredited by some partisan hack as nothing more than the ramblings of an idealogue - wouldn't you be more willing than usual to use stronger language to persuade the public of your case? It's hard to imagine scientists not having more of these types of problems following the Climategate emails, which show impropriety on the part of only a very few scientists. While unfortunate, it represents the arena in which climate scientists, willingly or not, have been thrust.

To summarize, politicians are being politicians, some interested party hacked into computers and stole information for its gain, and a few scientists succumbed to human temptations thereby discrediting their work... What is the takeaway? First, it's clear to me that with the stakes so high all around, we will only continue to see a politicized and contentious debate on the issue of global warming. Climategate has reminded me that powerful misinformation campaigns exist, and they exist at very high levels. The incentives for scientists on both sides to be discredited are high, and my sense is that sides will only become more entrenched as we move closer to global climate regulation. This week's research has reiterated the need to have a healthy skepticism for everything that we read or are told. But also, I think we should be looking for and advocating forums, publications, and platforms that are focused on giving people access to the best possible information.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Week 3: How to Live to be 100+ (just kidding)

Week 3 is going out a litte early given the upcoming ski weekend!

Distribution Source:
Content Source: Dan Buettner (National Geographic), Dean Ornish (USCF)
Format: Video
Length: 19 minutes, 39 seconds & 3 minutes, 14 seconds
Dan Buettner: How to Live to be 100+
Dean Ornish: Your Genes are not your Fate

The first two posts have stemmed from lectures and interviews posted to iTunesU. This week's source is; if you haven't visited TED I would highly recommend it. TED consists of a series of phenomenally interesting video lectures and in my opinion the tagline says it all - "TED: Ideas Worth Spreading." If I somehow manage to keep your attention for another few months I'm sure you will hear more from TED through this site.

When I hear titles similar to the one of this blog post, I think of either hokey "cure-all" pills for which you get weird email solicitations or crazy futurists like Ray Kurzweill who, while brilliant, don't exactly inspire me to take up their cause. So I was much more receptive to Dan Buettner's approach, who began his talk by telling us why you won't live to 100 and gave some common myths about aging. He basically said that we are not wired for aging, but rather for "procreative success." In other words, once you have children and your children have children, the effect of evolution dissipates and, well, we all know what happens next...

He counters this, however, by saying something that shocked me: his research suggests that 90% of longevity is not genetic! With the right approach and barring a freak accident, we could very much control our own longevity maximization. Of course this doesn't mean we all live to 100 (the overwhelming majority of us cannot), but it does mean that whatever our capacity is can be realized by the right choices - i.e., our fates are not written on the proverbial wall.

Here are two myths he gave on aging:

- If you try hard to live to 100, you can. He claims you have to live a very good lifestyle and hit the genetic lottery to accomplish this. But don't completely give up hope: he also notes that the 100 demographic is the fastest growing demographic in the US.

- Treatments exist to stop or slow aging. To this he says our bodies have 35 trillion cells (this is unfathomable to me), each of which turns itself over once every eight years. Every time there is a cell turnover degenaration occurs, and the rate of degeneration gets higher. In fact, someone who is 65 is aging at a rate that is 125 times faster than a 12 year old person! (apologies to the 60+ crowd; don't shoot the messenger...)

So given the morbid realization that we age at an increasingly faster rate and that most of us can't live to be 100, why should you keep reading? Because we can do much better than we currently are! According to Buettner, the average capacity of a human body is 90 years. But we all know that life expectancy is only 78 years... Why are we leaving 12 good years on the table? One approach is to look at areas around the world where people are living to be 100 years and older at up to a 20x greater rate than we are and where life expectancy is up to 12 years higher. Buettner calls these "Blue Zones" and identifies three of them:

The highlands of the Italian island of Sardinia has 10x more centurians than America. (sidebar: the video opens to an AWESOME clip in which one of the super old Italian guys crushes one of the camera staff in arm wrestling!) In general the residents of this area live on a plant-based diet. A key point seems to be how they treat their elders. Unlike in America, where finding a nursing home for your parents is treated the same as choosing your child's grade school (or if you live in Manhattan, pre-school), in Sardinia the older you are, the more respect you engender.

The Japanese island of Okinawa, 800 miles south of Tokyo is what Buettner calls the "ground zero" for longevity. This represents the longest disability-free lifestyle on the planet - on average seven years longer than Americans, with five times as many centurians. They also follow a mostly plant-based diet, and eat eight times as much tofu as Americans. Interestingly, he cites their strategic anti-binge eating culture as a major reason for longevity. Not only do they have smaller plates than Americans, they say our equivalent of a blessing before each meal which urges them to stop eating when they are 80% full. It is laughable to even consider this - or anything close to it - happening in my hometown of Houston, Texas. The culture also dictates a group of close, lifelong friends called a "moi." Some mois have average ages of 102, and have been together for decades. Another key difference from Americans relates to our focus on working incredibly hard and then retiring. In Okinawa there is literally no word for retirement. The Japanese culture also dictates that everyone has a "ikigai," translated as "something important one lives for." Of the centurians Buettner interviewed, one woman's ikigai was her great, great, great granddaughter. Another caught fish for his family each day.

Buettner's team also found an American blue zone, which, surprisngly to me was a large, 70,000 person Seventh Day Adventist congregation in southern California. The average age of women in the congregation is 89 (vs. 80 in the general US population), while the average age of males was 87 (vs. 76 in the general US population). The congregation is heterogeneous, so what they share is not genetic, but rather their process and lifestyle. The Church recognizes Friday night to Saturday night as the Sabbath, giving the congregation 24 hours of sanctuary time per week. They look to the Bible for their diet, take many nature walks, and do not use any drugs or drink alcohol.

So what were the similarities between the three Blue Zones? Buettner's team found a few:

- They all move naturally - none of them "exercise" the way we think of exercising (going to the gym, buying a treadmill, etc.), but all have activities in their regular lives that involve movement. Most do not have many conveniences and choose to do their own chores; many also keep their own gardens.

- Each group has a positive outlook - all have a method for down-shifting thir lives or "de-stressing." Slowing down for even 15 minutes per day can apparently turn back inflammatory responses induced by stress.

- All have and use language related to a purpose-driven life.

- All eat wisely, but have no real diet. Many drink wine, most have a plant-based slant, and most prevent overeating.

- Each values meaningful, regular connection with others. Family and friends come first; these are faith based communities where people belong to a tribe of similar people.

After watching this video, I was fascinated but wanted to learn more, particularly about the impact of your genetics vs. your choices in life. I came upon Dean Ornish's video, which in fact claims that your genes are not your fate. His message was simple: when you eat healthier, manage stress, exercise and love more, your brain gets more blood flow and oxygen. This is not particularly new or interesting. What is incredible to me is his claim that your brain also gets measurably bigger! His studies found that walking for three hours per week for only three months caused so many new neurons go grow it actually increased the size of people's brains! He then put a list of those inputs that increase - and decrease - brain cell count.

Those that increase include, fortunately, things I like (with the exception of the last one, of course... hey, it's a family blog):

- chocolate
- tea
- blueberries
- alcohol (moderate)
- stress management
- cannabinoids

Those that decrease brain cells include:

- saturated fat
- sugar
- nicotine
- opiates
- cocaine
- alcohol (excess)
- chronic stress

Dean Ornish concludes by saying that when you are healthier it isn't just your brain that benefits, your skin gets more blood flow (causing less aging), your heart gets more blood flow (actually reversing heart disease) and tumor growth is inhibited.

It's clear to me after watching these videos and writing this summary that I don't live as healthy a lifestyle as I can and should. Incidentally, my other new year's resolution (the first being the writing of this blog) is to on the margin pick the healthier option on the menu in 2010. Maybe I'll also work up the guts to send my boss a link to this post the next time I want to go to the gym but have too much work...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Week 2: Einstein's Ethics

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: American Public Media
Format: Audio
Length: 51 minutes, 3 seconds

Anyone who has taken a basic physics course (and many who haven't) will recognize the theories of special and general relativity as the work of Albert Einstein. These and countless other advancements in science have made Einstein's name synonymous with brilliance. While scrolling through lecture options for this week I was drawn to a series of interviews with physicists in which they discuss not Einstein's science but rather his ethics, covering everything from his views on religion to the development of nuclear weapons.

I went into these interviews expecting that Einstein's views on the atomic bomb and, by extension, World War II, would be most interesting to me given his unique perspective as a German Jew and his status as arguably the most prominent physicist of his time. While not disappointed on this front, I was fascinated by the fact that Einstein was an avid supporter of civil rights, specifically with regard to the plight of African Americans in the United States. This was surprising to many at the time, including the African American population. To Einstein, however, it was simple. Just as he approached science by asking simple questions whose answers would often lead to unique insight, he also approached social issues by asking basic questions: What if I were black? Would my work be as respected? Would my ideas be given the same weight? This thought process, coupled with his own family's persecution during the war, helped shape his ardent stance on civil rights. In his elder years he turned down lectures everywhere (including Harvard), yet chose to speak at Lincoln College, the first college to embrace and admit men of African descent.

Einstein was also philosophically anti-war. Interestingly, he seemed to accept the futility of this philosophy, noting that only if everyone is fully committed to peace could it be achievable. Given his sardonic view on the general intelligence of humanity, it is easy to see how Einstein believed the human race is basically screwed. He blasted those who led wars as nothing more than children fighting in a sandbox. These types of analogies represented an underlying view, which Einstein discussed with Sigmund Freud, that aggression is innate to humans. His discussions with Freud led him to the belief that only through wealth generation could we reach a societal tipping point at which people would believe that fighting wars was too expensive. He believed this wealth creation over time would instigate an evolutionary change that would effectively reverse the aggression instinct.

It is ironic that such a strong anti-war activist played an important role in convincing President Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb. Of course Einstein did not actively work to create the atomic bomb (though his E=MC^2 discovery was instrumental to the process); he did, however, sign a letter to Roosevelt urging him to create what became the Manhattan project. He did this because he realized very early on that Adolf Hitler could be stopped only through force, and that the Germans were pursuing a nuclear program (having split an atom in 1938). As early as 1933, Einstein informed Churchill that Hitler could be not be defeated politically, and that military force would be necessary. Einstein's support of such a project demonstrated a sharp pragmatism that contrasted with his idealist lamentations that technology was not being used to make life happy and carefree; at a disarmament conference in 1932 he said "as it is these hard won achievements (technological advances) in the hands of our generation are like a razor in the hand of a child of three."

While coming from a Jewish family, Einstein himself had a tumultuous history with his religion, and did not fully support Judaism until after the Holocaust. As a teenager, Einstein began to view religion as inconsistent with objective reality and his evolving understanding of scientific truths. Following the second world war, Einstein began to re-connect with his Jewish roots. He adopted a view that intertwined his deep respect and belief for that which science had proven with the staggering amount that we could not (and cannot) possibly understand about the world. He said of religion: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind, that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God." To Einstein, God is about what we cannot understand - all the mysteries of life - and this concept delighted him.

I was also struck by the multiple references to Einstein's personal life; there seems to have been a dichotomy between his normative, idealistic views on humanity and the intense pain he caused those closest to him. It is written that after dumping his first love for his eventual wife, Einstein continued to send his dirty laundry to his ex (which she, apparently, did willingly). Einstein accepted himself as a deeply flawed individual.

It's clear to me that Einstein was a rebel; he turned away from religion at a young age, routinely (and publicly) berated those in charge of the world, and took an unapologetic and atypical view on civil rights. He did what so many of us want, but do not have the courage, to do: he disregarded dogma and authority and blazed his own trail...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

About the 52 Week Project

This project is derived from a variety of recent events in my life. Over the past month, I've realized that I am bored with having a day job and want to do more to learn about the fascinating world in which we live. A first step was to basically stop watching TV and switch to reading books. The process of reading led me to think more about the idea of writing.

Simultaneously - and surprisingly - after over a year of owning an iPhone and using it religiously, I stumbled upon iTunesU. Put simply, iTunesU is a massively scalable, free distribution platform for a tremendous amount of searchable, free educational content. I thought immediately of other impressive collections of educational content available for free on the internet - wikipedia, TED, Cornell's eClips, free courses from Stanford, MIT and others. The list goes on...

The idea for the 52 Week Project is simple: every week I will select and write about at least one audio or visual clip from the many sources of free educational content on the web. The only caveat? The topic has to be something about which I know almost nothing. This guarantees that I go out of my comfort zone, learn new things, expose myself to criticism, and hopefully come away with a positive experience. Here we go...

Week 1: What is Distinctive about South India?

Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: Stanford University
Format: Audio
Length: 23 minutes, 24 seconds

To me, India is an enigma. Working in finance I hear incessantly about China - its growth prospects, its massive stimulus plans, its 1.4 billion people, its human rights violations... you get the picture. But why don't I know more - and hear more - about India? According to wikipedia, India is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world.

But this post isn't about India, it is about South India. Before today I didn't realize there was such a meaningful distinction between the two, seemingly far more so than the North-South divide in the United States.

Only 233 million of India's 1.2 billion people live in South India. What jumped out at me from this short clip is how fractured South India seems to be - linguistically, politically and religiously. This in contrast to North India, which in part because of its proclivity to being invaded, seems to have a far more cohesive social structure. The lecture refers to these distinctions from the north as "Dravidian distinctions." Dravidian seems to be synonymous with the cultures and people of South India, who among other differences have much darker skin than those of the north. In searching for the origins of this word, I found that the word may be derived from the Sanskrit word 'Drava', meaning water or sea. If this were the case it would certainly make sense to identify those from South India - surrounded on three sides by water - with this word.

South India is divided into a cluster of different states, with the lines having been redrawn in the 1950s-60s. Most of these state lines were drawn based on linguistics. While the north speaks predominantly Hindi, the South has a variety of languages, among them Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu.

In the same way that the south has no unifying languages, it has no unifying politics; in the north, because of the Gangetic basin and multiple invasions, there are large, imperial political structures covering millions of people and hundreds of thousands of miles. The most concrete political areas in the south are around the Tamil and Karala regions.

Religiously, South India is mostly Hindu, with 60 million followers. The spawn-offs from Hinduism - Buddhism and Sikhism being two notable examples - have more followers outside the south. However unlike the north, both Christianity and Judaism have a marked presence in the south. Christianity likely came to South India from St. Thomas in the first century, while Judaism came when traders settled in the region (also likely around the first century). While there are tensions in the north between Hindus and Muslims, exacerbated I'm sure by the always contentious Pakistani-Indian relations and the recent Mumbai bombings, this is not the case in the south. There simply are not many Muslims in South India. Rather it is inter-Hindu problems that dominate the south, particularly the politics of the caste system. Still today lower castes cannot so much as walk on the roads of higher castes!

So, what have I learned? South India is fundamentally different from North India, and aside from the Dravidian distinction and Hindu predominance, there are not many generalizations that can be made. It would take far more than a 30 minute clip to even begin to learn the nuances... See you next week!