Blog Post 2

                    The desire to make a change has allowed me to make tremendous strides in both the research and the development of the application.  Our team worked on the development of a virtual reality application to assist Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, specifically during the sundowning period.  Our app, DiscoVeR takes the user into three distinct worlds, a jungle, a city, and a farm.  In each of the worlds, the user looks around to interact with the various objects and animals.  Simply glancing at the animal assigns the user a quest to find a certain food/drink that the animal is looking for which appears randomly around the world.  The user then finds the item and returns it to the animal.  My favorite part of the application was a late addition, a music room.  Instead of animals, the user interacts with various instruments and each glance plays a different clip of the respective instrument.  Also included in the music room is a jukebox that contains about 20 classic songs that the elders should remember from their childhood and adulthood.  Music therapy is a proven technique to help these patients, so including it in the application was a necessity. 

               Although a working application is currently completed, there are still many questions that need to be answered to further enhance the project.  First off, the application needs to be tested with more seniors and those suffering from Alzheimer’s.  What might make sense to us as the developers might not make sense to a senior citizen using the app, and that is something that has to be strongly taken into account.  Directions need to be clear so that the senior is able to use the app with minimal difficulty.  The potential additions to the application are endless, and our team of developers and researchers are constantly looking for ways to improve upon our project.  The music room seems to be a favorite among those who have tried the app, so enhancing the features of that would be ideal.  Customization of the songs in the jukebox along with the user adding their own pictures to a wall could make the experience different and personalized for each individual. 

               Working on the app thus far has been an awesome experience, and one that has only just begun.  It really has expanded my knowledge into a field where I never saw myself taking any interest.  It’s amazing to think how much of an impact this technology can truly have on these individuals with Alzheimer’s, and I am honored and ecstatic to be one of the many people working towards bettering the lives of all those involved!

 

The Progress, Successes, Challenges, and Reflections of Analyzing Athletes’ PR Scandals Link to Endorsements

At this point in our research we are still continuously gathering data needed to measure the financial effect created when an athlete with major endorsements endures a public relations scandal. Our focus has been on a top-down secondary research approach collecting quantitative data. At the beginning of the project we decided we were going to collect and analyze the data for a minimum of 35 athletes. The initial list of athletes compiled had 43 subjects. For each subject, we must determine who their biggest endorsement deal is with, as well as the date they acquired that endorsement. The data variables we are analyzing for each subject include the intensity of the athlete’s scandal, the company’s revenue and stock price (at the date of the scandal, one week after, one month after, and three months after), and the S&P 500 (at the date of hire, at the date of the scandal, and one month after). The intensity of the athlete’s scandal represents how harsh or vivid the scandal is to the public. What is the difference in economic shock created by an athlete with abundant endorsements who gets caught using performance enhancing drugs versus that of an athlete with the same degree of endorsement acclaim who is alleged to have abused his spouse? By assigning a number that represents intensity to the scandal, we are able to account for this concept of severity of the scandal.  Currently we have a good amount of data we still need to unfold. Thus far along in the data collection, it is obvious that measuring the impact a player has on a company he endorses is very complex and intricate.  

 

The data we have collected has not raised any puzzling questions so far. Collecting the revenue and stock price numbers has been straightforward. The biggest challenge we have faced in the data collection process is determining when two key dates occurred: when the athlete acquired the endorsement, and when the athlete created the scandal. These dates are important in determining the trends of stock prices and revenues that occur after the addition of the athlete to the company all the way up to the day the scandal breaks out, and then from the day the scandal breaks out to the day the fall out tapers off. Another issue is that some of the subjects we planned to use in the research did not have prominent enough endorsements to include them in the study. For example, an ex-Cowboy named Greg Hardy was at the front of a domestic violence case that was a popular sports’ story last year. After hearing more and more about Greg Hardy’s case all throughout last football season, we figured he’d be an excellent subject to consider for our study. It took one search to find out he had no worthy endorsements to evaluate. That rules out Greg Hardy’s case.

 

On the other hand, we have experienced success. In our opinion, our biggest success thus far is coming to the realization of how detailed we can make this study. There are many microscopic variables that affect the economic relationship between an athlete and the company they endorse. This project is a conglomerate that we will continuously add different elements and variable topics to. Although this is a quantitative-heavy study, we have learned that the relationship that exists between athletes and their endorsements can also be analyzed qualitatively. What I mean is that when a scandal occurs it ultimately affects people, and these people perceive the scandal in a multitude of different ways. Companies that are sponsoring these athletes can argue that they had no clue about the athletes’ decadent behaviors prior to the endorsement deal. If the rest of the public perceives the situation the same way, then the economic impact created from the scandals’ occurrence could be slim to none.

 

The opportunity to complete this research has been advantageous to our academic careers. The final material we produce will truly be an asset to us. Currently, our immediate plans include continuing to add data to our set, and continuing to add detailed ideas about how scandals economically affect an athlete’s endorsement company. Our future goals include presenting it to an economics panel for potential publication.

A Taxonomy of Central Bank Data Visualization

Central Banks around the world release huge amounts of data continuously. This data is then used by policy makers, business owners, and the general public in order to make sensible choices regarding public policy, investment, and business decisions. The format in which central banks release their data varies. The purpose of this research project is to identify some of the major differences between how central banks choose to communicate with the public through their data releases and whether or not this has a significant impact on the economy and the financial system. In order to accomplish this, Professor Weinstock and I will be comparing the taxonomy of six main central banks including the Federal Reserve, the BOE, the BOJ, the Riksbank, the Swiss National Bank, and the ECB.
We hope to uncover the chronology in which central banking systems began a variety of visual communication tools such as fan charts, which are now commonly used by many central banks around the world. Despite the fact that many central banks use fan charts to visually represent their forecasts to the public, the manner in which these fan charts are created and displayed varies greatly from one central bank to another. We would like to determine which central banks have been more innovative than others and whether or not the marginal benefits of releasing such forms of data have had a positive impact on the economy. Our research involves indicating which central banks began such trends in transparency and communication to the public as well as which central banks followed in the footsteps of others. We will study the various forms of data releases and their effect on economic growth, employment, inflation, and financial stability.
How this data is then perceived by the public is what determines how the economy will grow or regress. Professor Weinstock and I are interested in the extent in which data visualization released by central banks impacts expectations and decision making. Central Bankers may try to influence the decisions made by investors by emphasizing some economic indicators while downplaying others. Central banks can alter the display of visual data. Does this affect how the public then responds to this data? Central banks know that a lot of smart people are watching them, so they may feel that there are some things they can get away with but they also want to be careful. This research definitely investigates central bank transparency and its impact on central bank credibility.

Blog Post # 2

For my research project with Professor Sean Daly, we have made significant progress toward coming to a conclusion on our research questions.

In our research, we have utilized various risk metrics such as the information ratio (set with the ACWI as a world benchmark) to arrive at our conclusions.  The information ratio is computed by dividing an ETF’s excess returns (“excess” beyond its benchmark return) by its “excess risk” (that volatility above and beyond the chosen benchmark).  It allows us to see if an ETF’s returns are really impressive compared to its benchmark and the added risk it entailed.

Most recently, we have measured two separate groups: the PIIGS – a group of developed European countries– and the “Urdanetas,” a name we use to describe a select group of Emerging Market ETFs that have outperformed most other nations in terms of growth.

The PIIGS acronym stands for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain.  With the exception of Ireland, these countries have information ratios that continue to decline even years after the initial PIIGs Crisis of 2010.  Though they are well-known and established markets, these countries are simply not delivering the right risk-adjusted returns from the standpoint of the universe of international ETFs that are now available to US investors.

Named after the famous Spanish navigator that pioneered the Acapulco-to-Manila trade route in the 16th century, the Urdanetas consist of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Peru and Chile. As a group, they have significantly out-performed their benchmark over the past three years.

As one collective group, these Emerging Markets have triple the annualized returns of the S&P 500 – with a much lower beta (vis a vis the ACWI) and less volatility.  This was surprising because during the past three years, there has been a real downturn in oil and commodities.  Some of these countries benefit from low commodity prices (the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia) while others benefit from higher prices (Peru, Colombia, Chile), so there is an interesting internal balance at work.

When comparing the emerging markets of the Urdanetas, the only negative information ratio for the period was Sri Lanka. If as an investor, you were to remove Sri Lanka from this list, then the group would yield an information ratio of 1.48 during 2014-2016, which is remarkable.

Though hardly know to US investors, Peru had an information ratio of 3.24 for the period of 2014 to 2016 – a stunningly great achievement when you consider that anything positive is considered outperformance.

We have also been researching the Nigeria ETF (NGE) as possible “mean reversion” trade, comparing its monthly returns to the Brent futures market since its currency depreciation in June 2016.

Blog Post #2

After careful consideration, we have had to slightly alter our initial topic. Our main question is if the effect of cigarettes on the lifespan is linear. In order to analyze this, we much look at the significance of the squared term.

Professor Colman and I have put a considerable amount of work into preparing the perfect data set for our analysis. We have had to merge data and cut out certain parts of our data, such as age (we started at age 18), and smoker status (we did not include those who have never smoked and those who opted out of the survey). This preparation required a some additional resources from various Stata textbooks, along with the help of Professor Colman. From this, we have prepared a data set comprising of a sample of people, ages 18 to 96, who have taken the NHIS survey since 1986 until 2009. The survey gathers information about each person, including the person’s smoking habits and their age. Once they have this information, they count each year in the national death records to see if the person has died or not, which can be indicated as either yes or no. From this, we created a dummy variable for our analysis, marking “1” if the person has died, and “0” if the person is still alive.

Originally, before seriously delving into the data, we thought we were going to use general multiple regression analysis to conduct our research. However, we determined that a better, more specific analysis would be using Maximum Likelihood analysis. This type of analysis is a better choice for our project because we are looking at how a smoker’s smoking habits enables them to be at a higher risk (‘maximum likelihood’) of dying. With Maximum Likelihood, we utilize Newton’s Method, which approximates the natural-log of our likelihood function with a downward curved quadratic curve. All in all, this downward quadratic curve provides a maximum point (the highest point on the curve), which is the maximum likelihood. For our analysis, we are finding the maximum log-likelihood (we use log-likelihood instead of just a likelihood function because of the large sample size) due to each smoker of the sample’s smoking habits.

In addition to utilizing the maximum likelihood analysis, I also had to look into how survival analysis is conducted in Stata. For this, one looks at a survivor function, which would represent if the person lives, and a hazard function, which would represent the risk for the person to die. As one would presume, as risk increases over time, as the person ages more and smokes more cigarettes, the hazard increases as well, therefore the likelihood of them dying is increasing as well. And vice versa.

We are currently going through the interpretations of these results, which we are eager to include in our report next week.

Student-Faculty Summer Research- Blog Post #2

Since my last blog post, Dr. Tekula and I have made significant progress in our research. As previously mentioned, our two main sources for our data are The Global Hunger Index (GHI) and Commodity Systems Incorporated. Through Commodity Systems Incorporated, we were able to look at indicators related to the volatility of prominent food commodities, such as corn, wheat, orange juice, and soy meal. Such indicators per commodity include the daily volatility measured over a 1 and 5-year trailing return from holding the commodity future and abnormal volatility, which is a continuous indicator measuring how high recent volatility is compared to long-run volatility for a commodity. As for the GHI, Dr. Tekula and I ran into a small issue with collecting the data. We discovered that The Global Hunger Index reports began being published annually by The International Food Policy Research Institute IFPRI in 2006. Prior to that, they calculated their scores using data from sources such as UNICEF, The World Bank, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Seeing as we wanted our data to go as far back in time as possible, we decided to construct our own dataset by pulling information from each Global Hunger Index report. After cleaning the data, our final dataset includes 131 countries, eight years of GHI Scores, the prevalence of undernourishment in children and adults, under-five mortality rate, and child wasting and stunting over the past 21 years.

Additionally, I have spent a large portion of my time researching scholarly journal articles related to our topic and learning an immense amount of information. I came across authors who have conducted research similar to ours, yet not identical, making it a valuable resource of information to add to our literature review. For example, some focused on the micro-effects of surging food prices in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America. Reading in-depth studies that have focused their analysis on a specific region has provided me with an advanced understanding on how the spikes in food prices may directly impact local hunger, but also how the effects may be different per geographical region. These scholarly articles also give us a method to follow for our methodology section.

While Dr. Tekula and I are still in the process of making our final conclusions, I have been experimenting in Stata and Excel with the data. After taking into consideration the fact that countries vary in size, I created a weight for each country in STATA, depending on their population. Using the United Nation Population Division database, I was able to match our 131 countries with its population size to produce weighted and unweighted GHI scores for each country. This gives us a more accurate picture of the average GHI score per country when comparing it to the volatility indicators.

This research opportunity has been extremely beneficial and exciting for me, as I have gained an incredible amount of knowledge on a wide variety of topics that truly interest me. I have accomplished the goals that I set for myself in my previous blog post, such as gaining confidence in my research skills and exposure to new methods to conducting effective research in the future, as well as more practice in Stata and Excel. I truly believe that this paper, once completed, will be a phenomenal piece to showcase my skills and interests to potential employers as I prepare to enter the job market in May. Most importantly, I have sincerely enjoyed working closely with Dr. Tekula throughout this summer. Her expertise, guidance, and support have greatly benefited me, both personally and professionally. I look forward to concluding this project with Dr. Tekula and presenting our findings at events such as Research Day.

UGRI post 2

Discuss progress made so far. Describe data and/or results and findings. Provide insights and reflections on data and/or results and findings / What did you learn from the project?

My literature research focused on HPLC settings for analyzing Amphetamines. All of the articles used a C18 column as the stationary phase but had slightly different mobile phases. One article described the mobile phase as “consisting of methanol, 0.1 % (v/v) triethylamine (adjusted to pH 4.50 with acetic acid) aqueous solution (45:55)” (A1), another consisted of “solvent A: water with 2 mM ammonium formate/0.2% formic acid, solvent B: AcN 100%” (A3). Other mobile phases consisted of “methanol with 0.1 % formic acid in water” (A4) and “methanol containing 10% of acetonitrile (phase A) and 5 mM of formic acid in water (phase B)” (A5). Many articles used Methanol, acetonitrile and formic acid in the mobile phases which suggests these chemicals are more reliable, accurate or easily obtained than others.

Some articles also provided a optimal column temperature for HPLC analysis. A general guideline suggested a temperature between 15-35oC while one article stated the temperature at 40oC and another at 50oC. Reading the recovery percentages for the experiments using these temperatures showed that in the experiment using a column temperature of 40oC the recoveries were averaging 75-100% (A3) while the experiment with a column temperature of 50oC had recoveries less that 80% (A4). While this doesn’t show causation, it can be seen as a correlation suggesting that lower temperatures around 30-40oC may provide a better environment for separation and analysis of illicit drugs by HPLC.

Another similarity between the articles examined was the flow rate the injection volume of samples. Most of the articles stated the flow rate used between 0.1 and 0.3 mL/min (A1, A3, A4, A5), and used an injection volume of 0.01-0.1 mL. The consistency of these articles suggests that these volumes and rates give the best data and analysis and provides a starting point for further experiments in method development.

For the best results it is recommended to use a gradient or elution process which differs depending on the solutions used. Most articles which included HPLC used this process. For example A3 described the elution used as “0–1 min: 98% A, the organic phase B then increased to 98% within 10 min. After that, the column was cleaned with 98% mobile phase B for 2 min.” The differences between elution processes used makes it difficult to determine which timescales and settings provide the best results. For future experiments this process may have to be determined experimentally.

Include any questions raised from collected data

Not all experiments examined in this project used SPE as the sample collection/purification process as we had planned to use. The one questioned raised through this research was if there was a better way to extract and purify spiked samples and if so, how are they better and why?

Explain any challenges and/or successes you’ve experienced with the project

When looking for articles and compiling others research it was difficult to find exactly what I wanted so I had to piece together the information I wanted from numerous articles. My focus was not directly discussed in the articles I was able to find which made searching for the info I wanted even harder

Reflect on impact the project had on you and any future plan you may have related to this project

This project was focused on literary readings and research. Because of this, I have become more adept at reading and understanding scientific literature and research papers. The results from this project can now be used to continue laboratory research with the focus of developing a method for illicit drug analysis using SPE and HPLC techniques.

The Heavy Weight of Stereotypes on Black Actresses

Blog Post #2

In my previously posted blog, I was introducing our research study, “Diary of a Mad Black Actor: The Real Range of Roles Being Given to African Americans” and its different components. If you did not get a chance to read the previous blog post you can read it by clicking here.  After fully diving into my research, I realized I was going to have to break the topic down into smaller categories to better understand my rather large data set. One of my prime methodologies while conducting this study is “bubble charts”. The software I use, Bubbl.us, allows the user to virtually create “mind-maps” or bubble charts that start with a single topic and expand to break that large title down to smaller topics.  The first sub-categories I created were African-American male actors and African-American female actors. With those two sub-categories, I created two different charts one for males and one for females. In this posting, I will specifically cover my findings on African- American female actors and provide insight on my data set and results thus far. The large scale data of female actresses was minimized to a smaller set for this blog post

Black Actresses and their Stereotypes

When diving into the topic of black actresses and the various roles being given to them, at first hand it seemed like there was a wide variety of roles being offered. From maids, to moms, secretaries, cops etc. It seemed as though black women were playing a full variety of roles. However, after closely studying the individual roles and the archetypes associated with them, my overall finding surprised me. It seemed as though Hollywood was writing the same role over one hundred times, with a different name and a different actress attached to it. The descriptions for some characters were so similar, it appeared a person could copy and paste the biography of another character into that space and no one would even notice. The actresses in my chart were carefully chosen in order to represent a full range of women. Laverne Cox is a transgender women which represents the LGBTQ community in my chart. The LGBTQ community represents a large portion of the acting industry as well as the world, so it definitely made sense to include it. In addition to including the LGBTQ community, my age range for the actresses is very wide. With the youngest actress, Keke Palmer, at the age of 23 and the eldest actress, Kym Whitley, at the age of 56. By using this wide variety of women, there will be a clear answer that these stereotypes are being put on all black women regardless of age or sexual orientation. The roles each actress played on this chart vary in genre. From comedies, to thrillers and dramas, a wide scale of genres is portrayed in this chart. Finally, I not only included feature films and network television shows, but streaming services shows are included as well to cover the broad spectrum of viewing experiences people have currently.

After analyzing the roles I used in my smaller scale chart shown below, it became apparent that 50% of the roles in my data set fell under an image known as the “Sapphire”. According to Dr. Carolyn West in her article “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and their Home Girls”, the sapphire stereotype is an African-American women character “who is frequently depicted rolling her neck, with her hands on her hips, telling off the person who has just offended her” (West 296). 14% of the chart fell under the “jezebel”, a stereotype in which a black woman is hyper-sexualized, or is willing to use her good looks or sex to get what she wants. The rest of the chart features a variety of different characters that were refreshingly non-stereotypical. The color-coded bubble chart, which can be viewed by clicking here, displays an array of black actresses and 1-2 well know roles they have played. I used overall viewer ratings in the United States for television shows [click here for all television ratings] and overall domestic movie grossing [click here to access all domestic grossings] to determine which roles were the most well-known.

Los Angeles Times Video

The Los Angeles Times recently released a video (and an article) featuring black actresses in Hollywood talking about the roles they constantly end up playing and the limited chances they get to play other kinds of roles. This video features Kym Whitley who is mentioned in my chart as well. The video reinforces my research by showing how absolutely necessary it is. These testimonials, published just 3 weeks ago, show how current this issue of stereotypes are as well as demonstrating the light currently trying to be shown on these stereotypes by the people who feel trapped by them in Hollywood. The stereotypes are put in these characters played by these women not because of acting ability, or genre but simply because of race. The Los Angeles Times is a massive news publication as well, so this platform publishing this story gives it the large audience it needs. These testimonials provide an insider opinion, as people are able to hear straight from the mouths of the actresses themselves, the inescapable pit of stereotypes they too often find themselves in. Click here to watch the video.

Conclusion

The process of this study was not easy at all. As I continue I know there will be more challenges. In addition to being extremely time consuming, this research study was especially hard because I had to completely scrap a massive chart I had created when I realized the software I was using prior to bubbl.us (Popplet) would no longer work for me. The software crashed on my computer along with a very large spreadsheet of male and female actresses with their roles. After countless attempts to recover the data, it was very clear I would not be able to recover it and it was back to square one for me. Unfortunately, in the digital age humanities projects, or film studies projects are all generally done virtually now so I am grateful to have found bubbl.us to continue my research.  It was difficult but I hope my research has brought some light to the topic and made more people aware of the stereotypes and lack of variety in Hollywood for African-American females. At first-hand it may look like there is variety but digging into the roles made me discover otherwise

This topic is so extensive and I know there is so much more research to be done, especially for the male side of the topic. I hope to continue this research as I expand the male category with a big movie like Black Panther coming out next year with an all black cast. While I am studying the male category I hope to research not only the stereotypes put on straight men but men apart of the LGBTQ community as well. Many times in cinema and television there is an extreme overlap with female stereotypes and LGBTQ male stereotypes so I look forward to that research as well. I hope to expand my research already performed as well. I look forward to seeing what else will come my way with this study.

Thank you!

-Kezia Dacosta

Women in STEM

Kaleigh Ryan

The research that has been carried out so far has consisted of interviewing three different faculty members (two in chemistry and one in biology) and transcribing the interviews. All three participants are female faculty at the undergraduate level. The questions that were asked were aimed at discovering what qualities female faculty members in STEM who have been able to be successful possess, being that STEM fields are largely male dominated. After transcribing the interviews, I went through each of them to find commonalities, revisiting each as I progressed and found new contradicting information. After this process was complete, I found information gathered from all three interviews that referred to the fundamental difference between working in the business side of STEM versus the academic side, the need to be able to balance the many requirements faculty STEM positions hold, and the different expectations that are held at different types of institutions.
The biggest challenge I have faced so far has been to be able to ask the right questions when interviewing while making sure not to lead the interviewee to a particular answer. I expected the interview process to be much simpler than it turned out to be. I went in with a set of five open-ended questions, and only in hindsight did I realize that there were several opportunities for me to ask a follow up question so something the interviewee had said. The information gathered so far has been very insightful, but I would like to look further into what the statistics are regarding female and male faculty members at well-known institutions. I would also like to see if the answers received by those I have interviewed so far would compare to faculty members at research 1 schools. I believe the most important thing I have learned from this project so far is the need for balance in the lives of female faculty members. The job itself requires attention to be given in research, educating students, and community events, and there is also the need in the lives of many of the faculty to also balance a separate family life. I would like to see how this challenge, more so than the other two, varies within different schools and different subjects in STEM.

One Millimeter

I had been in Afghanistan for three months. It was an icy Christmas night, and I was working a vehicle checkpoint. Back in the US, children were awakening to newly assembled bicycles, and Dads were pretending to like ties and cufflinks. Thinking about home conjured up images of Norman Rockwell. However, in the pitch dark of Afghanistan, all I felt was isolation. My teammates slept while it was my turn to be on watch. At the checkpoint where I was working, only intermittent Georgian radio chatter interrupted deafening silence. We had expected some rocket attacks that night, after all, it was Christmas. We knew full well that the enemy expected a level of complacency on our part. And then it happened, “BOOOOM!!!”

The silence had been broken. The rocket had landed so close, and struck with so much force, that the concussion felt like a Bruce Lee kick to the chest. My ears rang as I dove toward a dusty ditch for cover. My teammates, awakened by the explosion, rushed to setup a 360-degree security perimeter. My rifle aimed into the pitch-black landscape waiting for an invisible enemy to shoot first.

As I lay in the canal, I noticed some movement in the periphery of my left-eye. It was a woman in a full burka. She wasn’t supposed to be walking by herself. It was well into Christmas night, and a rocket had just exploded. Yet here she was walking alone, in a Muslim country. These were sure warning signs of trouble to come. She walked nonchalantly and carried an upscale paper shopping bag. It looked as if it were from the Gap, or a similar type of western store. “How was this shopping bag even possibly in this country?”, I thought to myself. I had processed a lifetime of information in the span of a few seconds. “This is where I blow up. This is the one”, I thought. I was no more than 10 feet away from her. My rifle barrel never left her chest. Suddenly, she stopped walking. She bent over at the waist, and gingerly placed the shopping bag by her feet. The woman stared off into the black void as she stood up. Time froze. “This is the one.” Being as quiet as possible, I dropped a round into the chamber of my M-4 rifle, and moved the safety lever to “fire” position. I curled my index finger softly but steadily around the trigger. Squeezing just one more millimeter would mean the end of her life, but it could also save mine.

I felt as if time had stopped. I was gripping my rifle so tight, I could see the barrel bobbing up and down with my heartbeat. She was clearly a suicide bomber. It could have happened at any moment…..BOOM! And what if she wasn’t carrying a bomb? What if it was fruit in her bag? The expression “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” ran through my mind. Despite the training, discipline, camaraderie, combat training, and weapons training, life hung by a millimeter. It was the cliché from every war movie; it was her, or me. It was just another zero-sum game. I did not want to shoot her, but I did not want to die over something as stupid as a suicide bomb. Yelling commands or instructions at her could cause her to detonate the explosives. My team and I were spread too far apart to quietly communicate, and my radio was….somewhere….it was cliché.

The woman bent over yet again, but this time, she picked up the bag. She stood up and paused. “This is the one”, I thought. After a moment that seemed like an eternity, she curled her fingers around the handles of the bag and slowly walked away. My rifle never left her chest as she disappeared into the pitch-black distance. She had no idea how close she came to dying that night. To this day I don’t what her intent was. Maybe her bomb malfunctioned. Perhaps she buried it further down the road. Maybe it was fruit after all. I will never know. I am glad I made the right decision. I would later hear Barack Obama say, “Sometimes you have to choose between a disaster and a catastrophe”. And on that day in Afghanistan, I wasn’t judged by twelve nor carried by six.

***************************************************

Letter 2: The lies

September is again here. Another year of lies and heavy propaganda is ahead of us. Now we are teenagers and now we know. And it hurts. The school year does not start with academic activities. Ceausescu is using us as cheap labor in the field. We go to school only to be picked up by old, dusty, and dirty busses. After an hour or so, we arrive to this farm and we are instructed how to harvest potatoes by digging with our bare hands in the dirt. Surprisingly, it’s kind of fun not because the work is easy (it’s exhausting and we don’t get breaks except for one at lunch), but because we are not in uniforms, we do not see the dictator’s face mounted on classrooms’ walls and on the front page of all textbooks. We do not recite stupid poems; instead, we speak among ourselves. Mind you, not freely. We know we have to be very careful. We have to select our words so we are not targeted as “enemy of the regime.” We have heard of cases before. We are cautious.

There is this very poor guy who once tried to smuggle two potatoes, stuffed them in his bag, got caught, slapped, and was humiliated. He wanted to bring two potatoes to his family! I feel sorry for him. But no one says a word. We keep our heads down and the ride back home is painfully silent, as if we did something horrible. The next day, mother gives the school officials a letter claiming I have allergies to dust. My work in the field stops.

To this day, I have no idea what was written on that letter/note because I know for a fact that, for the convenience of the regime, certain things did “not” exist. For example, allergies. That was something outrageous, a western invention, the sign of a weak mind. We, communist in training youth, were strong and brave, and we could not ever succumb to the easy and depraved life of the west. Allergies? Even if they were, we could battle them with our communist strength. (Do you feel the nonsense? That was our daily lives.)

Another word that did “not” exist was disability. In my class there were at least 5 students who were not able to read and write and talk fluently, but the system had to pass them because we were all the brilliant, vibrant, and patriotic offspring of communism. Plus, intellectuals were not welcomed in communism. Proletarians were, the workforce, the ones who did not have to have opinions and did not care to open a book because exhaustion & routine warped their lives.

Growing up with so many lies, can you imagine? There was no reality anymore. It was so light, it was so crushed, it was wiped up, it was bleached, it was violated constantly that we knew otherwise, yet anything that was reported in media had to be presented bombastically differently.

From 1965 until 1989, we were lied systematically, brainwashed. Some tried to rebel. They were tortured and they paid with their lives. Some tried to escape as political refugees. If they succeeded, they did not look back. If they didn’t, they were killed. Most of us, kept silent, but the rage was growing exponentially each year. This silence was a heavy load, a bitter taste.

How can one resist in a system like this without telling lies? Does integrity still exist in such milieu? Are all political regimes doomed to be corrupted and full of lies?

Well, I am not sure anymore.

Be well, my friend.

C