Missiles Going Off Over Iran

- - Nelson Lewis
Russian missiles

Russian soldiers carry along some missiles

As the world becomes more and more concerned about Russia’s intervention in Syria, two US military officials have said that four Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea fell short of their Syrian targets and landed in rural Iran.  These errant strikes were part of a volley of 26 long-range cruise missiles that Russia had fired on Wednesday.  The flight path for these cruise missiles took them over Iran and Iraq.  Since one of the officials said the US couldn’t detect any casualties or damage from the errant strikes, it’s possible that the missiles fell harmlessly in Iran.

After recently starting to conduct airstrikes and expand its military presence in Syria, Russia has denied that any striked have missed their Syrian targets, claims that Iran’s defense ministry dismissed as “psychological warfare”.  Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has characterized Russia’s behavior as “unprofessional” after Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace and came within miles of a US drone.  Russian ships have also fired cruise missiles without warning, and their armies have been backing the Syrian government in a “joint ground offensive”.  According to the US, Russia’s cruise missiles and airstrikes appear aimed at supporting the ground offensive and attacking the more secular forces opposing Assad.

Russia has insisted they’re targeting the ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria, while the US has said they’re more focused on combating ISIS while also pushing for a political transition to remove Assad from power.  Russia’s assistance has energized the Syrian army, which had earlier been on the ropes.  Syrian chief of staff Gen. Ali Ayoub claims that the new offensive, centered on the central and northwestern parts of the country, is aimed on “liberating” the area from terrorist groups.  While Ayoub didn’t specify the target areas for the new offensive, he said that Syria had created new fighting units, augmented by Russian strikes against ISIS.

I once heard that the situation in Syria right now isn’t a matter of “good guys vs. bad guys”, but rather an instance of “bad guys vs. worse guys”.  Seeing what ISIS is doing, it’s easy to just write them off as the “bad guys”, and whoever is fighting them as “good guys”.  Yet anybody saying something like that about Assad, even if he does bring an end to ISIS, would be sorely mistaken, and thinking that Putin didn’t have some ulterior motives for helping him would be naïve.  If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!

What to Expect in the Upcoming GOP Debate

- - Nelson Lewis
Donald Trump silly face

In the upcoming debate, the various GOP Presidential hopefuls will look to find a way to knock down Donald Trump.

Ahead of the second presidential primary debate tomorrow, Republican rivals are fighting with each other to seize the spotlight from Donald Trump, who is looking to find new ways to keep the attention on himself.  After rallying a huge crowd in Dallas, the billionaire plans on giving an address aboard the retired battleship USS Iowa in Los Angeles tonight.  When speaking to a crowd to supporters, Trump promises “I’m not going anywhere”.

Even as Rick Perry has dropped out from the presidential race, Trump’s 15 other challengers are ever more eager to knock him down.  Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is currently closest to Trump in the polls; according to a NYT/CBS News poll, he’s risen 23 percent against Trump’s 27 percent, bringing the two “outsider candidates” to a near-tie.  Carson’s performance on the debate field has helped to vault him from a total unknown to second place in the Republican field.  However, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Marc Thiessen has warned that support for Ben Carson remains “soft”, and he can lose his spot just as quickly as he gained it.

Whether or not Carson will tangle with Trump in the debate tomorrow remains unclear.  After the two sparred after Carson questioned Trump’s faith last week, the former apologized.  Yet other candidates appear eager to take on Trump.  Gov. Scott Walker, whose poll numbers have slowly slidden all summer, has claimed he plans on being “aggressive”.  Walker has been harping on the issue that’s brought him national political fame: rein in America’s labor unions, including eliminating the National Labor Relations Board and federal employee unions.  Yet such tactics have drawn the ire of Democrats, who have dismissed his proposed policy as “desperate and disgusting”.

Gov. Chris Christie also seems like he’ll be fighting hard in the debate, claiming that he’ll offer himself up as a strong leader who “knows who they are”.  All in all, eleven candidates are set to square off at the debate in Simi Valley, CA.  Carly Fiorina is possibly the candidate with the most to gain, after vaulting into the main stage line-up after her stand-out performance at the undercard debate last month.  After steadily rising in the polls ever since, she’s lately found herself a target of Trump’s attacks.  Meanwhile, Bush is looking to recapture momentum after putting on what many have viewed an “uninspiring” debate from last time.  He’s promoting a new tax plan, apparently crafted “in the spirit of Ronald Reagan”.  Bush seems to be channeling the Reagan approach, having been seen this past weekend wearing a vintage 1984 Reagan/Bush campaign shirt.

If you’d like to find out more, click here!


The Digital Nomad

- - Nelson Lewis

Many a Monday morning has been spent envisioning a secluded beach somewhere in Thailand, daydreaming about a lone table in a cafe in the cobbled streets of Paris or sipping a hot cup of tea on a crisp English morning.  Inevitably, however, you’re greeted back to reality by a mounding pile of emails and the drab walls of your cubicle and Paris is soon forgotten.

That is the sad truth of working life for most, yet there is an obscure number of the working population who are at the liberty to live our Monday-morning fantasies everyday. These people are the digital nomads; the Nelson Lewis Digital Nomadrare few who have a skill in an area that allows them to leave the confines of a office desk and go anywhere they want that has a good WiFi connection. Anywhere.

Computer programmers, writers and even some entrepreneurs have this kind of mobility, since their job description entails only the use of a laptop and high-speed internet. A lot of digital nomads are freelancers, while many have a full-time job and freelance on the side, because this is a lifestyle that demands a solid source of income.

In this mashable.com article, many such nomads share their unique experiences, some choosing an entirely nomadic one sans possessions travelling from Thailand to Macau to Prague, while some work at office for a few months and travel for the rest, and then there are those who do not choose the digital nomad lifestyle to travel extensively, but simply to add better balance to their existing lifestyle.  A Wednesday morning lie-in or attending their child’s school recital is worth a trip to Machu Picchu for those with busy family lives.

These mix-and-match lifestyles have evolved simply because of the downsides of living a completely nomadic lifestyle. Most interviewees have agreed that sustaining this lifestyle can get a bit lonely sometimes, and there is always the added pressure of maintaining deadlines while you would rather be out scuba diving in the exotic city where you’re currently staying. The discipline of a working environment is often missed, as well as the days of uninterrupted sleep with meetings being unceremoniously conducted at ungodly hours to accommodate time differences.

Despite the hassles of this lifestyle and the occasional boredom, most digital nomads say they are not interested in giving it up anytime soon. Its not simply about the travel for most, but also about the sense of freedom the 2.6% of telecommuters get from their remote jobs. With reforms in healthcare, the idea of a secure full-time job is almost redundant and more and more people are shifting towards this adventurous lifestyle.

There are days when the quaint little cafe in Paris doesn’t have good WiFi, the sandy beach in Thailand is too noisy or that picturesque cottage in Nepal has frequent power failures, and then there are days when they work three hours and then skydive somewhere in New Zealand, and you have to wonder why they ever claim to be bored.

New York’s Lost Languages

- - Nelson Lewis
Nelson Lewis Chinatown

Various New York neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, feel like they aren’t even in the US.

Since the beginning of time, languages have been disappearing, fading into obscurity as time, war and various other factors make them obsolete.  Often, people transition out of one language into another, either by choice or because they were forced to, which linguists refer to as a “language shift”.  Look, for instance, at the Gaelic languages spoken in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and to a lesser extent Canada.  During the 19th century, these languages were viewed as “backward”, serving as an obstacle for advancement in the English-speaking British Empire.  Gaelic-speaking families discouraged the use of the language among their children, until it looked like the Celtic languages would fade into obscurity.  During the 20th century, however, something amazing happened: a revival in Celtic nationalism saved these languages from extinction, and are now widely heard once again.

However, not all languages are so lucky, going extinct as their last native speakers die out.  According to UNESCO, about half of the world’s 6,500 languages are “critically endangered”, and may fade away before the end of the 21st century.  I recently came across an interesting article about one of the places in the world where so many languages have gone to die: New York City.  Indeed, New York has been a linguistically and culturally diverse place since its founding nearly 400 years ago; when a French Jesuit priest visited New York in the 1640s, back when it was a remote Dutch trading post called “New Amsterdam”, he reported a total of 18 different languages spoken amongst the settlements’ several hundred inhabitants.  Nowadays, there are an estimated 800 different languages spoken in New York City’s 5 boroughs, including many that are at risk of fading away.

When we think of “endangered” languages, it’s easy to imagine some primitive dialect spoken in the remote wilderness of Papua New Guinea or the Caucasus Mountains.  However, even more endangered languages can be found in a place such as New York City, particularly the borough of Queens, considered to be the most diverse place in the world.  Jackson Heights, for instance, is home to a large Nepalese community, where immigrants congregate together to preserve their language and culture.  Many of them live within a few blocks of each other, and meet regularly for various social events where they chat away in their endangered dialect.  And in a place as diverse as Queens, many of these immigrants grow up speaking a variety of languages so that they can communicate with their neighbors.

Recently, two linguists and a performance poet set up the Endangered Language Alliance, an urban initiative for endangered language research and conversation.  There have been several languages who died in the streets of the Empire City over the years, and countless others who are in danger of following suit.  Many communities leave their homeland entirely behind to settle in New York.  The Gottscheers, for instance, are an ethnic group from what is now Slovenia, descended from ethnic Germans who settled in the area in the Middle Ages.  Surrounded by Slavic-speaking populations, the Gottscheers were isolated from other Germanic populations, retaining their own variety of language that’s now unintelligible to German speakers.  In the aftermath of World War II, the last speakers of this language ended up in Queens.

Recently, the Endangered Language Alliance have been recording obscure languages they found in New York, such as Garifuna from Central America or Mamuju from Indonesia, recordings which could very well be the first ever digital documents of these languages being spoken.  Being the last speaker of a language can be pretty lonely; you have nobody to talk to, no way to write it down and a lot of the cultural and historical knowledge you have doesn’t translate so easily into English.

Ebola Czar Named

- - Nelson Lewis
Nelson Lewis Ron Klain

Ron Klain

In response to growing calls to appoint a “Czar” to lead America’s battle against Ebola, President Obama is planning to name Ron Klain, a longtime political hand who doesn’t seem to have any medical or health care background.  However, Klain isn’t completely without experience; he did serve as chief of Staff to both Al Gore and Joe Biden.

Through this appointment, Obama will be bypassing another official, Dr. Nicole Lurie, who has served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services since July 2009.  Nearly a decade ago, Congress created this post, which, on paper at least, would seem to fit the bill for an Ebola coordinator.  The mission of the assistant secretary is to lead the nation in preventing, responding to an ultimately recovering from the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters, which range from hurricanes to biological terrorism.  It’s also in the authority of the assistant secretary to develop and procure needed medical countermeasures to deal with such issues.

In one profile, Lurie was referred to as the highest-ranking federal official in charge of preparing the US to face such health crises as natural disasters, disease and terrorist attacks.  She’s described as having intimately dealt with such major health disasters as Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing.  However, not much has been published on her work during the current Ebola crisis.  During a September interview with the Washington Post, Lurie spoke about her role with Ebola, saying that her agency is currently partnering with others to ensure health care workers have the necessary information and preparation to identify and treat Ebola cases, and is working with others to speed up vaccine testing.

In regards to the Klain appointment, a White House official spoke of how his management credentials, extensive experience with the federal government and solid working relationship with major political leaders.  Lurie, on the other hand, hasn’t been without controversy.  In 2011, she was cited in a congressional investigation of a controversial no-bid contract given to Siga Technologies to develop a smallpox vaccine that some experts deemed unnecessary.  However, many lawmakers have been calling for an “Ebola Czar” to lead the fight against the disease, and feel that despite such transgressions, Lurie is an excellent candidate.


Siberian-American Link Discovered

- - Nelson Lewis

It’s well-known that the American Indians and Siberian tribes share common ancestors; the ancestors of the first American Indians arrived in the Americas some 20,000 to 15,000 years ago via a land bridge that collected Alaska and Siberia, and after the land bridge was buried by water, they stayed on the new continent.  However, according to a recent study, certain Native American tribes and ethnic groups in Siberia also share language traits.  Scientists from my alma mater, Georgetown University, used a technique called linguistic phylogeny to discover a direct link between the Na-Dene language family of North America and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia.  These findings reveal that the migration of peoples from central Asia to North America might not have been a one-way trip, with some people returning to their native home, taking their language back with them.Dene

Back in 2012, DNA research revealed genetic markers that linked people living in Altai, in southern Siberia, with the American Indians.  Because of thse wide spread of languages, and the fact that links still remain in Siberia, researchers have suggested that some of these migrants returned to their native Siberia.  To further investigate this possible connection, scientists used a technique originally created to investigate evolutionary relationships between biological species, known as phylogenetic analysis.  This involves creating a tree that represents relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits.  Researchers used a linguistic version of this phylogeny, and discovered around 40 languages that diffused across Asia and North America.

Scientists began their study by coding a linguistic data set from each of the languages, and established relationships between this data.  They then applied these links to the known migration patterns from Asia to North America.  Their findings highlight an early dispersal of Na-Dene along the North American coast with a Yeniseian back migration to Siberia.  According to study co-author Dr. Mark Sicoli, they found “substantial support” for the out-of-Beringia dispersal, adding to much more evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age.  He also mentioned that although the researchers cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results, it does seem to indicate migration that may not have just been one-way.  It also helps to demonstrate the usefulness of evolutionary modeling with linguistic trees for investigating these types of questions.

Russian-Ukrainians Plead to Russia

- - Nelson Lewis

I recently came across a blog post about an ad campaign that Russians living in Ukraine have launched, telling the Russian government that they don’t want (or need) to be saved.  According to Putin, his intervention in Ukraine is to “protect” the country’s ethnic Russian minority.  In this video, Russian citizens living in Ukraine talk about how they never felt “mistreated” or “marginalized” in their new country.  The five Russians that show up in these videos claim to be totally happy in “this wonderful country” (Ukraine), and don’t need Putin interfering in their lives.

Optimized-Ethnic Map

A map of the various ethnic groups in Ukraine. Places where ethnic Russians make up a majority of the population are shown in red.

I’m not entirely sure what to think of this video.  The new Ukrainian government has proven itself to be hypocritical, and used some less-than-savory tactics.  For example, back when the protesters were attempting to overthrow the Yanukovych regime, there were reports of snipers attacking protesters and doctors.  This became a symbol of how corrupt and barbaric the Yanukovych regime was, and alienated many of the President’s closest allies.  However, during a leaked telephone conversation between Estonian foreign affairs minister Urmas Paet and EU foreign affairs minister Catherine Ashton, it was revealed that the snipers were actually hired by members of the opposition movement.

It’s very possible that this video (which is released by the new “Euromaidan” regime in Ukraine) is all staged.  A lot of different regimes have released propaganda videos in the past, so it’s possible that this is just one of those.  That being said, I don’t think that the Ukrainian government is actively persecuting ethnic Russians.  I’m no foreign policy expert, but I think doing that would be diplomatic suicide.

If Putin is able to use the “I want to invade [insert former Soviet Republic here] to protect the ethnic Russians living there” excuse, then it sets a dangerous precedent.  Ukraine isn’t the only former Soviet Republic with a large Russian minority.  We all know about the Russia-Georgia conflict from 5 years ago, when Putin tried to annex South Ossetia, a region with a large Russian population.  Several years earlier, Putin offered to annex Belarus, a country where 70% of the population speaks Russian.  Russia’s Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, both have large Russian minorities as well.  And ethnic Russians make a up a large portion of Kazakhstan, especially in the northern regions, where they have close family and cultural ties to Russians on the other side of the border.