Monday, December 31, 2007

Last day of the year?

Exactly one year ago, I wrote a note titled New year, how does it feel?. Essentially, what I tried to do in such post is to relieve the end-of-year melancholy that affects some people during the holidays season. New year is just that final piece of the season, the one that brings all that spirit down and back to reality. As the celebration and concept of New year hasn't changed a lot throughout the years (and it probably won't ever change), I believe it is appropriate to retake some of the stuff that I originally wrote in the 'New year, how does it feel?' post and update it accordingly, for all the people who might be feeling nervous, melancholic, sad, or frustrated about this specific day.

Once again, the big change that we'll be facing after midnight today is that we'll be ending one month and starting a new one. Just like happens when we go to sleep on March 31, and the next day we wake up on April 1st. The only essential difference in the transition from December to January is that we'll change a digit of the year in our calendars, passing to 2008.

Most of the people who celebrate the transition from December to January (a. k. a. New year) is not really celebrating the transition itself. The celebrations are more oriented to the feelings linked to the perfect time to have 'new beginnings' in life. Some of the ideas that wander in people's minds during the night of December 31, and on until January 2, are mostly related to challenges to pursue during the next 12 months in the shape of personal promises: "I promise myself that I will lose some weight this year", "I promise myself that I will quit smoking by the end of this year", "I promise myself that I will study harder this year", and so on. It is indeed a time that inspires some people to do changes in their lives, although I personally don't see why should we wait until a specific date in our calendars to do such changes. New beginnings, personal promises and changes in people's lives may be made anytime throughout the year.

The reason for which sometimes people wait until the night from December 31 to January 1st is that the end of the holidays makes them more sensitive. They take a more melancholic approach when they start thinking things like: "Oh, I wish I could have done xxxx this year", "I regret not having been able to xxxxx", etc. That's when depression and sadness come in.

Technically speaking, the new year in the Gregorian calendar should only have a specific meaning in the Christian, Catholic, and all other related faiths. For people belonging to other cultures, the transition from December 31 to January 1st is just like the transition from any day in the year to another. In fact, many cultures and religions around the world are aware of the Gregorian calendar, but they rule their activities based in different calendars, for which the beginning of their years does not match the beginning January every year. Here are some examples:

  • The Jewish Calendar is ruled by the behavior of the moon. It begins the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which occurs every year sometime between the end of August and the beginning of October. The next Jewish new year will start on Tishrei 1, 5769, which in Gregorian terms will be on September 30, 2008.
  • The Muslim (Islamic) year is about 12 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. The New year in the Muslim calendar, or Hijri calendar, is marked by the beginning of the month of Muharram. Curiously, Muslims around the world will experience two new years during 2008: The Islamic new year 1428 will happen on January 10, 2008; whereas the Islamic new year 1429 will occur on December 29, 2008.
  • The Chinese also observe an own calendar, different from the Gregorian. The beginning of the Chinese new year is typically marked by the second new moon after the winter solstice (although there may be some exceptions to this rule), usually sometime between January 21 and February 20. Each of the years in the Chinese calendar is related to an animal of the Chinese zodiac. The beginning of the Chinese year 4705, year of the rat, will happen on the midnight of February 7 to February 8, 2008.
  • In Ethiopia, a different calendar is also observed. Although it is linked to the Coptic calendar and it's also related to the Christian and Catholic faiths, it differs from the Gregorian calendar in terms of its beginning and the counting of the years. The Ethiopian calendar begins the first day of the month of Maskaram. The next Ethiopian new year, which will be 2001 according to their tradition, will happen on September 11, 2008.
Finally, I want to end this note exactly with the same words I used for my note last year:

"There's no reason to feel melancholic or nervous about the year that is ending, and the one that is just about to begin. The way I see it, the new year celebration gives people a good excuse to share and spend times with the family and friends, and it constitutes a good engine that keeps economies moving. So enjoy wisely the day, and happy new year!".

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A very twisted end of the year 2007

This year is coming to an end. It couldn't be closing in a more dramatic, bizarre and twisted fashion. The brutal assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan and leader of the opposition to Pervez Musharraf's rule, is certainly a catastrophic incident that will bring nothing more than instability to Pakistan, its neighbors, foes and allies. Bhutto's assassination was not only a very coward demonstration against democracy in a country where most citizens have struggled for years to establish a government that truly works for the interest of the people (instead of the ambitions of small groups), but it was also a very effective way to boycott the elections that were scheduled for early January in Pakistan. It looks that Musharraf's rule will stay in place, at least until the peace is somehow restored in the country.

This year is closing in a very shaken way. But the way in which 2007 is coming to an end is, unfortunately, not very different than the fashion in which recent years have ended as well. Let's do a bit of retrospective:
  • During the final days of December of 2006, the world had split opinions regarding the imminent execution of Saddam Hussein. The situation was tense, and people (especially in the Arab nations) were expecting a big turmoil were Saddam executed. In addition to Saddam's case, a terrorist attack to the Barajas International Airport in Madrid, Spain, left two casualties, a severe material damage in some of the airport's buildings, and panic among the Spanish population. This combination of incidents made the closing of 2006 a very negative one.
  • During the final days of December of 2004, a deadly tsunami hit several countries in the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands of people (some sources estimate the toll to be as high as 300,000 victims). Needless to say, the tsunami left several people homeless, provoked a shortage in food supplies, severed families, drove out tourists from a zone that typically survives from its income on tourism, and caused critical damages to the infrastructure of the places it hit. Such tsunami, nicknamed by some people "the Boxing Day tsunami" (because it happened exactly on Boxing Day - December 26), is the deadliest catastrophe in the recent history
  • Also on December 26, but of 2003, an intense earthquake devastated the city of Bam, in Iran. The death toll for this incident was estimated to be as high as 80,000 victims, plus many more injured. Additionally, the damages to the city's infrastructure and landscape (considered a World Heritage site by the UNESCO) were severe, to the extent that the Iranian authorities are still working to date in order to restore the site.
Let's hope that the year 2008 brings more fortunate events than the ones exposed above. However, I extend by now my most sincere sympathy to the people of Pakistan.

Photo by AP

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chavez' investments on 'science'

I have a personal saying: When you think you've seen the worst, be prepared to prove yourself that you were wrong. This means that, each time we think we've seen the most stupid, or the most horrific, or most evil things on Earth, we should be aware that it is possible to reach new lows, and those new lows will be invariably reached by someone, at some point of time.

It is unbelievable the degree of foolishness that some individuals can reach in order to gain popularity. Evo Morales' proposal to move the UN headquarters and his initiative to force Coca Cola to remove the "Coca" part from its trademark seem to be very clever and humanistic when compared to the newest idea launched by his friend and ally Hugo Chavez in Venezuela: To examine Simon Bolivar's remains to determine the "true" cause of his death.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is as pathetic as it could get. History tells that Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), a Venezuelan native and Liberator of several South American countries (including Venezuela, of course), died of tuberculosis in Santa Marta, Colombia, shortly before leaving for exile in Europe. Bolivar has been used by Hugo Chavez as a symbol of his socialist movement, which he calls the socialism of the 21st century, and as such, Chavez believes that it is Venezuela's 'moral obligation' to investigate the cause of Bolivar's death, as he might as well have been intentionally poisoned. Not only that, but Chavez also wants to make sure that nobody has 'made the bones disappear'.

Chavez says that the Venezuelan government is ready to dedicate as many resources as the country can offer to solve this 'big' national concern. No doubt about it. The results of the DNA tests that are being proposed for Bolivar's remains will certainly allow Chavez to sleep peacefully at night, and it will also let the Venezuelan taxpayers know that their money is being invested in very important projects to improve the quality of life of Venezuelans. Pathetic.

Be prepared, however, to find something more pathetic than this in the distant future... or maybe not so distant.

More information available at Yahoo News.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dry times ahead for China

One could say that China's main problem is its deplorable environmental record, which is reflected by the extinction of endemic species and the dark 'honor' of having 2 out of the 10 most polluted cities in the world (and probably many more on the way) within its territory. But those problems are not that big compared with what China will be facing in its future.

According to an interesting article published by The Globe and Mail, the Chinese government just realized that the country will be running out of fresh water supplies by 2030. Major contributors to this potential catastrophe will be the population size (expected to reach 1.3 billion people by then), global warming, and the lack of strict regulations to promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and discharge of waste in rivers and other fresh water sources. As a result of the drought, China might reduce its crop production capacity, which will in turn lead to scarcity of food, death of cattle, famine, diseases, etc.

It is a very frightening panorama, indeed. In fact, China is just experiencing a taste of how bad that can be, as some western and south portions of the country have been suffering of chronic droughts for some time now. The government is realizing that the threat is for real, and if the country doesn't change its attitude towards environmental issues to assure a sustainable growth, then the consequences will be bitter. Not only they will lose the economic growth that China and the world boast about, but they will also be prone to never get it back.

By now, the Chinese are looking at short-term solutions, and they will use part of their massive foreign exchange reserves to purchase food from other countries for the areas affected by the current drought. But that sort of solution will not be enough to face the scarcity problems in the long run. If I was to give the Chinese authorities some suggestions, I would encourage them to stop utilizing excuses to not comply with the Kyoto protocol, or the new agreement that is being negotiated in Bali (if it ever gets through). Then, they should monitor the industrial activity throughout the country, to make sure that companies are working on the greenest standards possible, as most countries do, and apply severe punishments to companies that systematically break such standards. It will take some time, but the drought in 2030 is not impossible to revert.

Of course, I don't expect the Chinese authorities to take those words from me. But they have been warned now, and the future of millions of people depend on their capacity and will to manage sustainability from now on.

With some information from The Globe and Mail.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Garbage in, garbage out: The new 7 wonders of nature

As if it was not enough to have designated a new group of 7 wonders of the world in the lamest selection process ever seen, now the same bunch of people responsible for those designations came up with the wonderful idea of voting what they will call the "new 7 wonders of nature".

That's right; believe it or not, there is a posse of individuals who think that some of the natural landmarks on Earth deserve more credit than others. To prove that, it is just a matter of time until we can hear from the 'official' candidate sites. Internet users are invited to propose their 'favorite' natural beauties through the New7wonders Foundation's website. But, if you are thinking of proposing some natural site that does not have a high traffic of tourists on a regular basis, here's a rule of thumb: Just as it happened with the so-called "new 7 wonders of the world", only famous places will be considered. Needless to say, only the top selling destinations will receive the honor of being named a 'wonder' by a group of individuals sometime in 2010.

It shouldn't be too challenging to figure out some of the places that have been proposed so far, which could also have any chance to be 'awarded': The Sahara desert, Mount Everest, the Galapagos Islands, Ayers Rock (Uluru), the Niagara Falls, and the Serengeti National Park, among others. I just can't wait to hear about the selection criteria for the 'candidates', to learn why Mount Everest is better than Mount Aconcagua, why does the Mid-Atlantic Range (the longest mountain range in the world, which is located under the sea) deserve less recognition than the Himalayas, or why can't the Gobi desert be considered wonderful if compared to the Sahara, just to mention some of the multiple examples on top of my mind.

My expectations for this new popularity poll are obviously pretty low, like they were for the 'original' new 7 wonders of the world circus. Just as my statistics professor taught us in his class, remember that garbage in, garbage out. Or, in other words, if an event with a lame purpose is organized, then its result will invariably be equally lame.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Chavez' revenge?

It was extremely surprising to read the newspapers around the world last Monday morning, all of which highlighted the results of the referendum in Venezuela, through which the Venezuelan voters voted against reforms to the Constitution promoted by President Hugo Chavez. Those reforms were mainly targeted to perpetuate Chavez as the President and to modify labor and property laws that would turn Venezuela into a socialist state. But it was even more impressive to see Chavez serenely admitting his defeat before the mass media, even congratulating his opposition and the Venezuelans for the exemplary elections day that was lived in their country last weekend. His pantomime was so well planned and executed, that it even led people around the world to believe that Chavez was a real democrat and a good and honest leader for Venezuela.

It was very hard to believe that a president known for his habits of insulting leaders around the world and for being an individual who doesn't seem to know anything about diplomacy would suddenly have such sort of positive change in his attitudes. It was really odd to see a president who systematically bans freedom of speech in his country to humbly accept a defeat and congratulate his most hated foes for their victory. It was strange, strange, strange.

A newspaper confirmed today what I thought: all those attitudes were only part of Chavez' circus. That was just the kind of attitude that he wanted to show to the international community: a good, democratic, moderate president that has been unfairly tagged by some foreign governments as an autocratic and repressive dictator. But of course, the Venezuelan president had an ace under his sleeve, and as soon as he lost international attention regarding the referendum that took place last week, he switched to his normal dictator hat and warned his opposition: '[the opposition's victory] was a sh*tty victory. Our defeat, if you want to call it that way, is a defeat full of bravery and dignity. Hit us, Empire (the United States), we haven't moved a single millimeter. Well, we'll move, we're going forward'.

Just in case there were still any doubts about his addiction to power and his dictatorial style, he threatened his foes: 'Be prepared, as a new offensive will be coming soon with the proposal [to perpetuate him in power and to turn Venezuela into a socialist state], the same one [which was turned down in the referendum], or transformed, or simplified'.

Venezuela had a great victory last weekend in the referendum. They let the world know that the Venezuelans want a real democracy in their country, not an individual ruling for life like they have in Cuba. The Venezuelans are really looking forward to the economical, social and political integration of their country to the international community in order to have a modern and progressive State. But their main hurdle to achieve those goals is ruling their country right now, and he will do all in his reach to take Venezuela in the opposite way. At the end of the day, the more problems the Venezuelan nation has to cope with, the easier it is for him to shine as a great, almighty leader, especially among the poor majority of the population.

Photo: EFE

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tony Royster Jr., a contemporary prodigy

From time to time, we have the opportunity to delight our senses with the art made by some prodigious people that are one of a kind. For people who are passionate about music, just as myself, listening to a gifted musician is always a pleasure that positively captivates our mind and soul.

One of those prodigious musicians is Tony Royster Jr., a highly talented American drummer that has amazed the world with his impressive agility to hit the drums. I believe it's worth watching the way he played drums at age 12:

Time has passed, and Tony is now 23 years old. He has had time to improve his drumming techniques these years. He currently enjoys a very strong reputation as a prodigious drummer and now he tours around the world, setting drum clinics in different corners of the globe. Here's one of his most recent performances, available in Youtube:

I'll summarize my thoughts about him: Just amazing.