War: What is it good for?

If you love the song “War” like I do, you’d immediately answer “Absolutely Nothing”, but unfortunately, the question of war is not so clean-cut. Certainly, I’d love to see a day when there are no more wars, but unfortunately, that probably won’t happen anytime soon. Humanity loves conflict, and although conflict is generally not conducive to reaching eventual peace for obvious reasons, war can actually work to further the cause of human rights in some cases.

Of course, the majority of warfare in history has been (obviously) quite destructive, as most wars are generally waged in the material interests of a nation or its leader(s), which tends to result in a menagerie of murder, stealing, and various other crimes. The War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War, for example, were 3 wars waged in America’s history explicitly for the purpose (or result) of adding land to the USA. And while these wars may have not been very deadly as far as wars go, they were waged in cold blood. At the very least, the US entered WWI and WWII to defend our soil and our allies, but other wars, those not waged for the preservation of human life and human rights do little else but sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of some in order to destroy the lives and livelihoods of others.

There are situations in which it is justified to use military force, however. Self-defense is an obvious one, and in many cases, so is intervention to end the reign of tyrants like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddhafi. In fact, the situation in Libya, at least until Gaddhafi was killed, was intervention done right. In principle, there was nothing wrong with removing a dictator who carpet-bombed peaceful protesters by the thousands, and the execution of the mission did not, fortunately, follow the same path as the Iraq War. In theory, I think that any situation in which some sort of dictator or general is intentionally killing thousands of civilians  justifies the involvement of troops by any nation that can help, so long as:

a) Removing the illegitimate leader from power and promoting the establishment of peaceful democratic institutions is the sole objective of the intervention

b) Strict measures are taken to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties

Of course, these are only a few theoretical parameters for a situation that would justify military involvement; the reality is that some civilian casualties will likely occur, and a theoretically justified intervention situation may escalate into a deadly, Iraq-like conflict. Those potential costs of action need to be weighed into any sort of democracy-spreading military involvement; execution may not always work as well as planned.

Take Vietnam for example: Starting the war was not entirely unjustified (though I’d still disagree with it) given the potential human cost that would likely occur in a communist Vietnam, but as the civilian body count sprung up, the costs of war became clear. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a surefire sign that the US was not on top of the situation, and in the aftermath of that, it would have been better to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty rather than escalate the number of troops in Vietnam and bomb neutral Cambodia.

Involvement in most wars, however, seems like a less moral operation when viewed with the gift of hindsight. The Vietnam and Korean Wars were both started for the cause of keeping communism from expanding, and the spread of protests against Vietnam rather than Korea were nonetheless due to the high death toll caused by the war. As death toll clearly makes a difference, any nation must take potential death tolls into account when considering any military involvement. Because of the obviously deadly nature of war, I would prefer to refrain from war in most cases, but if the situation requires decisive action in order to prevent mass murder and other human rights violations, then all nations willing and capable of acting to prevent a large loss of human life ought to do so.

Peace to you, and hope for the day when all war can finally be abolished.

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The Dictator: The Review

If you’re like me, you probably love tasteless and offensive humor, the kind of jokes that PC crybabies can’t seem to differentiate from actual racism, sexism, and hatred. As we know, one of the best artists of tasteless humor over the last decade has been Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who made audiences everywhere laugh with Da Ali G Show, and his equally tasteless (and unscripted) movies, Borat and Bruno.

Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator, has met with significantly less positive reviews (A 59% on Rottentomatoes’ Tomatometer compared to Borat‘s 91%), and I can’t really see why. Certainly, The Dictator can’t provide the same sense of oh-my-god-he’s-doing-that-to-random-people as in his first 2 movies, given that it’s a scripted movie, but I feel that a third unscripted movie would wear out the whole unscripted-comedy shtick.

That said, The Dictator still has a comedic roof set above it, but it manages to bring in its fair share of laughs. Sacha Baron Cohen is as willing as ever to make a film that breaks and ridicules Western taboos on sex, race, and gender, dedicated to the memory of Kim Jong-Il. The character of General Aladeen is reminiscent of Borat; socially backwards yet still likable (I have no doubt that audiences were cheering Aladeen on as he fought to stop democracy from coming to his country). The presence of basic elements of Cohen’s previous work are enough to make The Dictator at least worth seeing.

Of course, The Dictator is no Borat. The inclusion of a love scene in The Dictator did little more than make the whole film feel that bit more unoriginal, adding nothing to the laughs department, and the occasional bouts of leftist propaganda definitely made the film feel less funny at certain points (though most European audiences probably took to those points). Critics have also slammed the movie for its lack of a complex plot, but if you’re really searching for a complex, intelligent plot, don’t look for comedy movies, go read a book.

Ultimately, The Dictator has everything it needs to satisfy fans of Cohen’s type of humor, and though it will never become as memorable or iconic as Borat, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it and would recommend it to anybody who enjoys a little bit of tasteless humor.

The fastest way to learn nothing, guaranteed

Ok, so I have no idea if anybody who reads this blog is interested in learning foreign languages. I have no idea if anybody who will ever see this post has any interest in languages. However, I still feel the duty to warn consumers of the biggest, fattest lie in the language-learning market.

If you’re from the US, you’ve probably heard of Rosetta Stone before. Their ads are impossible to miss, bearing enticing slogans like “learn through immersion” and “learn a new language like your first one” have proven to be very successful marketing techniques, no doubt, but don’t be fooled: The fact that Rosetta Stone is a household name doesn’t negate the fact that the actual product is mostly useless.

So, why is Rosetta Stone a crappy product?

It’s easy to fall for Rosetta Stone’s slogans (guilty), but they are B.S. How much “immersion” can you possibly get from sitting at a computer? Children don’t exactly learn languages by sitting at a computer and clicking on pictures; they learn by play and experience of the world around them; you can’t simply put that into a box. Their pseudoscientific pitch about connecting you directly to your new language is similarly ridiculous; adults cannot use the same region of the brain to learn a language as small children can.

However, I suppose you can’t expect a company to provide a completely accurate representation of its product in its ads, right? Rosetta Stone could still be an excellent resource for learning new words in an innovative manner, right?

Wrong.

The product itself is actually nothing more than a short series of beginner-level words drawn out into 5 levels that take about a month each to complete (assuming that you do  a few hours a week) Each exercise involves a few different activities, such as matching words to pictures, choosing the right word to fit a picture, etc., all with about 3-8 pictures per screen. There are periodical reviews of old materials, and tests at the end of each lesson. However, there are a number of problems with Rosetta Stone’s approach.

1) There is very little content. After the first level, you’ll be able to ask a few questions in the language and you’ll know a few complete sentences, but nothing past that. The later levels don’t have much more; even after the 5th level, you won’t be at the level where you can just go up to a native speaker and just start a conversation. You’ll be able to talk about a few things, but considering the amount of time it takes to finish the program, it’s not worth it.

2) The few things you do learn are hardly useful at all. Much of the early units consist of phrases like “The man has a ball” or “the woman is drinking orange juice”. These phrases need to be learned at some point, but I think “What time is it?” or “Where is the airport?” are more important to learn when learning another language.

3) You will not learn the culture of the country that speaks the language you’re learning, guaranteed. Most of the pictures included in the exercises were shot within the vicinity of Washington D.C, and since the program was created using a template, it will not take into account the nuances of different languages. In the German version, for example, they teach you “Vielen Dank” for “thank you”, although “Vielen Dank” is not the phrase you’d use in an everyday situation.

4) It’s so easy not to learn with Rosetta Stone.  The program re-uses a lot of its pictures, so it becomes easy to choose the correct word just from remembering the picture instead of learning the words.

5) You will not learn actively. While this is hard to accomplish using language software, the speaking exercises are nothing more than “repeat-after-me” deals, turning into pronunciation exercises, and the writing exercises end up becoming nothing more than spelling exercises. Will you learn how to speak and write actively? Nope.

So, what good is Rosetta Stone?

Admittedly, it’s not all bad. You will learn a few (emphasis on the word fewthings, and no translation is a decent concepts, but for a $600-or-so program, the dearth of information is just appalling. I suppose that they’ve improved a little bit since I’ve used the program; Version 4 (I used Ver.3) TotalE includes an online feature in which you can chat with other learners, but what are you going to say to them? “The eggs are over there”? If you used RS as your sole source of learning, that will be the end result, so I can’t see those new features doing much apart from raising the price.

All in all, Rosetta Stone is a good buy if you are willing to overpay and spend too much time on learning beginner-level material in another language. However, if you want a software program with enough substance to carry you past the “beginner” level, I recommend TELLMEMORE. It’s not a perfect program by any means; it isn’t as aesthetically appealing as Rosetta Stone, and it does have a few embarrassing technical issues that a full-blown software program shouldn’t have, but with multiple times more material at a better price than RS ($400 to Rosetta’s $500-$600), it’s no contest. You will actually learn a language with TELLMEMORE, and learn a bit of culture while you’re at it. If you’re looking to learn a language using software, you can’t go all the way with any software, but stay away from the massively marketed ripoff that is Rosetta Stone.