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Preparing for Tanzania

Welp, the time has finally come to actually GO to Tanzania. I’ve been talking about it for literally a year now and I can’t wait. Although, I have to admit, I don’t feel like I’m well-prepared for it at all. I’ve been continuing to learn Swahili, but with finals and junk I kind of fell out of it. I can still say the basic words and stuff, but I’m going to have to do some serious remedial work if I want to be useful at all on the trip. That being said, I’m the only one going who actually tried to study it ahead of time, so at least I’ll still be one of the best ones! Also, I didn’t realize quite how differently I was going to have to pack and prep for this trip than for my ones in the past. How dumb am I? I’m going to a whole new continent and I thought it was just going to be the same thing as going to Western Europe. Either way, I’m going to have to be prepared, so check in this summer to see if I make it out okay!
Another thing I’m VERY pumped about is that I’m going to be doing a few weeks of traveling in Europe and seeing old friends. It’s a huge opportunity funded by a few lucky breaks I had this semester and I just can’t wait. I’m going to see old roommates in Paris and London, my best friend in Leida, and I’m returning to Bologna before I head out to Tanzania. It’s going to be so excellent to see them again after all this time. It makes this summer trip just that much more exciting, and I can’t wait to share the things I do with everyone on this blog. Till next time!

Peace Corps Prep

I wanted to take some time to use this blog for a bit of a plug, just in case anyone’s out there listening. Recently, OU began a program called Peace Corps Prep, and it’s a very exciting possibility. The Peace Corps has started giving out certificates in its various sectors, like Environment and Health, to help applicants’ chances of getting in. That’s a big deal, because its SUPER competitive to get into the Peace Corps. There are 4 different requirements you have to fulfill, involving studying a language, have some leadership experience, doing some volunteer work in your sector, and adding some extra coursework that works with your sector. For the most part, its really not that difficult; depending on your major and the sector you want a certificate in, a lot of the times you can get that requirement done just through your major studies. The other areas are pretty easy to follow through with as well. It’s a super valuable program and its really new, so now’s the time to get started on it. Sarah Griswold with the IAS program is the head of it if you’re interested.

On a personal note, this comes at a fantastic time for me, because I’ve recently decided to go into the Peace Corps directly after graduation. There’s a ton of cool benefits to it, including scholarships for grad school and preference on federal job applications, and I’m not sure I want to jump right back into school after spending five years in undergrad. I’m working on the Environment certificate as we speak. I’m excited to see where it takes me (hopefully Morocco). Okay, there ends my little plug, but hopefully one of you checks it out and follows through, because the Peace Corps is an excellent option for GEFs like us.

Cyber-Physical Social Systems and Why Self-Driving Cars Are a Little Scary

For the IAS Global Cyber Security Symposium, I attended Dr. Mohebbi’s lecture on cyber-physical social systems, which is a complicated term describing the theory of combining technology and civil engineering to improve infrastructure. There are a lot of ways that computers can help us in daily life, but the interface between physical and technological systems has not been thoroughly explored for a few reasons. Dr. Mohebbi gave a few examples of such systems and gave a comprehensive overview of what such systems would mean for the world, and it ended up being a very interesting lecture.

Before listening to this lecture, I only knew about one use for this idea: self-driving cars. Obviously, it is a revolutionary idea, and Dr. Mohebbi used it as the central point of her presentation, seeing as she studies it in her work. However, I had no idea the depth of problems that come along with such an idea. First off, the amount of personal data the system would need to properly function is staggering. Tracking a vehicle’s location at all times is a thorny issue not only in practice, but from an ethical perspective. Secondly, these types of systems are generally very vulnerable to attack, from either physical or cyber-attacks. Also, as these systems are difficult to model, collecting data to properly create these systems is a difficult proposition. Such systems are often judged based on resilience, which is a combination of protection from attacks and the ability to both recover from and continue to function during an attack. Overall, the insights provided by Dr. Mohebbi provided a lot more clarity on why I still must pay attention while I drive my car instead of having a computer do it for me.

All jokes aside, cyber-physical social systems have some deep implications for the world going forward. This idea could apply to diverse types of systems: utilities and infrastructure, economic function, and most frighteningly, military applications. Cooperation between countries would be a high-risk high-reward situation, but if it worked, it could help create an incredibly efficient and well-networked world.

As I said before, this talk was a surprisingly insightful look into current research into cyber-physical systems. Dr. Mohebbi was thorough and well-informed, and she also touched on the moral implications. She was worried about the privacy of individuals if these systems were used, which is something I completely agree with. The more of these types of systems there are, the more citizen data would be necessary for a state to implement them. Information like that could be used well or to control and intimidate the citizens of a state. In the end, research into this will move forward whether there are possible issues, but I am glad to know that the academics on the ground floor are thinking of such issues while they are doing their work.

The Inter-American Human Rights System

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture of Dr. Morais de Sa e Silva on The Inter-American Convention on Human Rights (IACHR) and how the Inter-American system functions with regards to human rights. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the second hour of the lecture, but the first half was an insightful look into the actual meaning of human rights and how the Inter-American system functions. The discussion began with a general overview of what a human right is and how the term “human rights” is defined, before getting into exactly how the Inter-American system functioned. The Tribunal and Court were discussed, as well as the history of the convention, especially which countries didn’t participate. I was also able to listen to how the Court hears cases and how they differ in power from the Tribunal before I had to leave.
For the most part, I was totally surprised by this event. I didn’t know before hearing Dr. Morais talk that the issue was so complex. I suppose I assumed that more rights were universal than they really are, and I definitely didn’t realize how difficult it would be to clearly define them. The fact that some consensus has been reached at all on an international scale is incredible. I also found it interesting that the United States didn’t recognize the court’s influence because of state sovereignty issues. With the whole overview of the Inter-American system and its functions, the talk was a fantastic look into the increasingly tangled world of IGOs, NGOs, and human rights.

Right-Wing Germany and the Rise of the AfD

Recently, I went to a speech on conservatism in Germany today. Dr. Schapkow’s discussion of the rising conservatism and populism among the German population dealt with an intriguing and timely topic, one that has far-reaching consequences. In his speech, Dr. Schapkow gave a brief history of German politics following WWII, specifically dealing with the divide between East and West Germany and how that changed German political ideals. The East Germans, having learned a twisted history of the Holocaust through the USSR and dealing with economic hardship following its fall, developed a more nationalist-focused consciousness and a resistance to immigration than the West.

Today, that consciousness is embodied by the AfD (Alles für Deuschtland, or All for Germany), a heavily anti-immigration and nationalist party that focuses on the anger of the German working due to feelings of “losing out” economically due to globalization and the flood of refugees. Dr. Schapkow detailed how the AfD is growing across both West and East Germany. His focus was on how the anti-Islamization ideals of the AfD and their spread will have a major impact on German and world politics in the coming years. Put broadly, the rise of nationalism in Germany is both paralleled by and will have major ramifications for the growth of populism across Europe, and even in the United States.

Personally, I found this lecture to be a well-thought out and impactful warning about the wave of populism sweeping the world. He commented on how nationalism has not been studied heavily following the Cold War, much like how Sovietology fell off after 1991. Such widespread nationalism has led to some of the most devastating events in Western history, most notably the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich through the idea of “Das Volk”, or The People”. Worryingly, this idea has been resurrected by the AfD, and history unfortunately shows us how such ideas can lead countries to horrible places. The lack of study on this idea could be devastating in the coming years, and his call to study it further certainly rang true.

As for Dr. Schapkow’s personal views on the subject, he and I saw nearly eye-to-eye on almost everything. His worry and disdain for the politics of the AfD rang true with my thoughts towards support for Trump and his “America First” policy, and I saw a lot of parallels between our countries’ political climates. His disdain, however, was tempered by the understanding that simply deriding these people for having hateful views would never work; rather, those of us on the other side need to start a dialogue and try to understand their views. This struck a chord with me because there do not seem to be many people in America today who want to cooperate. Unfortunately, such cooperation is going to be the only way to bridge the divide seen in modern American politics.

Overall, this lecture was an excellent overview of current German politics and clarified how nationalism has affected Germany so far. I am even more convinced of the fact that the world needs to further investigate the dangers of populism, while simultaneously trying harder to understand and solve the reasons for its resurgence. Studying nationalism will only become more important in the future and discussions like this one will be critical to stop it from spiraling out of control once more.

Foreign Music

Lately, I’ve been listening to more and more music from outside the States. Most of it is Italian, but there’s definitely some other countries thrown in there. I listen to some Egyptian and Lebanese songs, French songs galore, a few Spanish songs (Elvis Crespo is my main man), and oddly enough, some Hungarian, Dutch, German and even Mongolian songs. I certainly don’t think I’m “tired” of American music; I’m unbelievably pretentious, but not quite so pretentious as to believe I’m somehow “growing out” of our stuff. There’s just an unbelievable variety of songs outside of what I’m used to and it feels like it’s time to explore it. I have some ulterior motives, of course; the Italian and Arabic music is definitely to practice my languages, and the Spanish is to help me building at least some comprehension, but the rest of them I can’t explain quite so easily. I have no idea what’s going on in the lyrics of the songs, and yet it doesn’t seem to matter. This is odd because I hear from my friends and family all the time that they’re not particularly interested in foreign music because they can’t understand it. While I understand wanting to know the meaning of a song, does it really matter that much? I think you can get the feeling of a song just by listening to it, even across Non-Western cultures, and actually understanding the direct meaning of the words is secondary to understanding the song. Either way, I don’t really need an explanation; all I know is that I’m really loving this odd music phase I’m in.

Going to Tanzania

I’ve finally decided on where I’m going for my short-term study abroad, and it’s a bit of an odd pick. I’m going on the Journey to Tanzania trip in Summer 2018! You may ask: Nick, why would you pick an African country when you have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be like? You could go to Italy and continue practicing Italian, or literally anywhere else in the world. Well, I’ll give you the short list of my reasoning, and hopefully it’ll help explain at least a bit of why I’m such a weird dude.

  1. I’ve never been to Africa! This one’s fairly obvious, seeing as I want to see every continent. Even though everyone says Africa is a country, it’s really not, which SO blows my mind (please notice the sarcasm)
  2. I don’t want someone to guide me through Italy. Don’t get me wrong, I’d LOVE to get back there, but I’ve already seen a good amount of the places in the journey program. Plus, I don’t want to spend a month rushing my way through a bunch of cities when I could spend some time just hanging with friends. I think that there are a lot of better ways to view Italy than at a sprint, so I think I’ll save it for another time.
  3. It’s surprisingly cheap to fly from Dar Es Salaam to Rome, which is the second part of my study abroad plan. Once the Journey is over, I want to fly to Italy and the UK and see some old friends again. That way, I get to spend my time across the ocean in the best way possible, rather than going over there and wasting an opportunity to revisit Bologna. Hopefully by that time I’ll have enough money to spend on the trip, but that’s a problem for Future Nick.
  4. Based on the pictures, I’m pretty sure you get to play with animals. So that’s the big draw here.

In the end, I think Tanzania is the best option for me to expand my cultural literacy. It’s a whole new area I’ve never explored and I can’t wait to see what it’s like. I mean, I have to wait obviously, but I digress.

Binging on Baccano

I’ve gotten a lot more involved in Italian Club (Baccano) this semester, which has been a really good move for me. I was the acting vice-president for the whole semester, with the original president studying in Bologna and the original VP being the president. I got to help write our budget, plan and set up events, and recruit people to show up, which I just had a blast doing. In fact, I came up with the karaoke and wine tasting event we hosted in November, which I’ll talk about later. We had a few classic events and a few new ones this semester: our classic bake sale and our Italian-language conversations were a success as always, but we had a bocce tournament that was new, along with the karaoke event. We also had a party for the majors and minors in Italian near the end of the semester, where we got to eat pizza together and just discuss all the fun stuff we wanted to do going forward. It was awesome to get together with a lot of the other students and really soak in the Italian, because it can be really hard to find other people who are willing to speak it as often as I am. The party showed just how many people were interested in Italian. It was encouraging because we’ve had a problem with enough people wanting to learn the language, but with how well the club went this year and our new professors finally getting used to Norman, I think Baccano is only going up from here on out. While I may not keep my position when the original president returns, I definitely want to stay involved and have a good influence on the future of the Italian program here at OU.

Italian Karaoke

This semester, we had one of the most fun events we’ve ever thrown for Baccano: A wine-tasting and karaoke night at Michaelangelos! Obviously the wine tasting was a little more *unofficial*, but everyone knows its impossible to sing Italian songs (or karaoke in general) until your second glass of wine. Michaelangelos was the absolute perfect place to throw it, seeing as the Italian professors already loved going there for the fantastic coffee, and they had a ready-made stage and screen for the karaoke. At first, I was worried no one was going to show up, and it’d just be me and few others. It’s been hard for us to get people excited about Baccano events. It wasn’t exactly well-managed in the past, and no we’re fighting hard to bring it to some sort of relevance. Anyways, after the first few shuffled in, a lot more people started coming, including most of the Italian professors and some people living in Norman from Italy. A good chunk of new students came as well, which was very encouraging. Karaoke, though, can turn out very awkward if no one steps up, and that’s definitely what happened at first. Eventually I got my courage up and I was the first one up, after making my professor and the club president promise that they’d go up next of course. It may have started slow but by the end of the night just about everyone had sang, sometimes multiple times. All the professors go involved as well, which is just hilarious and so much fun to watch. Everyone who went said they had a great time, and it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to again next semester!

Caffè e Conversazione

Caffè e Conversazione is one of the things I look forward to most in a semester. It’s an event that Baccano throws a few times a semester, where students from all levels of Italian get together at Crimson and Whipped Cream to practice their speaking. I started with it a year ago just to practice, but it’s become a great chance to see old friends and people I don’t get to run into very often. Now that Baccano has been built up more than before, more people tend to show up and make it a much more fun time, including professors and older Italians from around town. Sometimes, I’ve spent an hour just talking casually to my professors, which is a really cool and unique experience. It’s hard to see all of these folks regularly, seeing as they have different classes and lives than me, so talking to them at these events is a good time to catch up. I’d like to expand the event further in the future, however, because eventually it’ll be too crowded for that little coffee shop. I don’t quite know how I’d do that but that’s a problem for the future. For the moment, I’m definitely going to continue going to the conversations in the future.